YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation

Globalization Activists Go to Charm School

Advocacy: Experts say the movement in U.S. has matured, gained support and had an effect since '99 Seattle WTO protests.


WASHINGTON — In a church basement a couple of miles from the citadels of international finance, opponents of globalization are trying to revive the spirit of Seattle.

An anti-globalization garage band unleashes a sonic barrage titled "Third World Scene." The Anti-Authoritarian Babysitters Club offers to keep an eye on infants of the revolution. Forty or so protest planners stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle and chant "Si, se puede" over and over.

Translation: Yes, it can be done. Even after Sept. 11.

Nearly three years after 50,000 protesters virtually shut down a meeting of global trade officials in Seattle, activists would be pleased to mobilize a mere 10,000 when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank hold their fall meetings in Washington this weekend. In the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks, which made any form of civil disobedience seem unpatriotic, even that goal may be optimistic.

But there's more to a movement than street theater and crowd counts. Authorities on development issues, including some of globalization's stalwart defenders, say the movement in this country has broadened, matured and become more influential in the 33 months since Seattle.

"The movement is getting much more sophisticated, even the activists in the streets," said Nancy Birdsall, a former World Bank official who heads the Center for Global Development in Washington. "It's gone from anti-globalization to alternative globalization to managing globalization."

Development experts credit activist pressure at least in part for a range of developments, including a decision by the World Bank to give poor countries a bigger voice in developing poverty-reduction plans and agreement by the World Trade Organization to give top priority to the needs of poor countries in the round of worldwide trade talks launched last year.

Globalization critics denounce some of those initiatives as inadequate. But if nothing else, they represent an acknowledgment that wealthy nations and their financial institutions cannot afford to appear indifferent to global injustice.

"They won the verbal and policy battle," said Gary Hufbauer, a pro-globalization economist at the Institute for International Economics in Washington. "They did shift policy. Are they happy that they shifted it enough? No, they're not ever going to be totally happy, because they're always pushing."

Experts see evidence of the movement's growing influence in other arenas.

Several high-profile economists, including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, have endorsed some of the specific criticisms and objectives of the movement. Their critique was reinforced by growing evidence of the failure of "Washington consensus" formulas to foster growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The issue of Third World debt relief resonated with a much wider audience when Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and Irish rock star Bono jointly toured some of sub-Saharan Africa's poorest countries.

Many development experts point to Jubilee 2000, the Third World debt-relief group whose work has been championed by Bono, as the non-government organization with perhaps the most influence over public policymaking.

"Jubilee 2000 had a tremendous impact in mobilizing focus and political support for the decisions that were eventually made," said Mats Karlsson, the World Bank's vice president for external affairs. The result, he said, "is a very radical debt relief program that is now being implemented country by country."

Other groups have had an effect too. Oxfam, the London-based relief organization, made waves with a report stating that more trade liberalization, if managed properly, is the best prescription for reducing world poverty. The International Labor Organization has convened a high-profile working group to assess the social implications of globalization.

"All of the major organizations have grown enormously more powerful and effective. The only thing that's shrunk is the street protests," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "The movement hasn't lost momentum at all. It just shifted to a different set of tactics."

For every organization involved in what some call the "movement of movements," there have also been smaller but symbolically important victories.

Jubilee USA's crusade has been joined by a remarkably wide range of organizations, from conservative evangelical churches to the San Francisco 49ers football team.

For the World Bank Bond Boycott, which hopes to generate the kind of financial pressure that helped end apartheid, a big turning point was the Milwaukee City Council's 13-1 vote this spring to join the campaign. "We've seen a huge shift," said boycott coordinator Neil Watkins. "When we started in 2000, there's no way we could have even talked to the city of Milwaukee."

Los Angeles Times Articles