Globalisation and business

This comes to you from Mumbai, where I have had the privilege of attending the World Social Forum (WSF) over the last five days.

The WSF began as an alternative to the World Economic Forum in Davos, which is a gathering of heads of state, senior business leaders and others, which takes place at around the same time. The WSF instead brings together a wide range of civil society organisations and interest groups, mainly from developing countries, to discuss issues of development, global justice and poverty. It is often described as a meeting of those groups opposed to globalisation – more about that later.

What was it like?

This was the first time the WSF has been held outside the Americas (it has been in Brazil for the last two years). Over 100,000 people attended the forum, which was hosted at a large exhibition grounds in the outskirts of Mumbai.

The venue is difficult to describe. It seemed strangely derelict – a lot of huge sheds, like disused farm machinery stores, with little in them, interspersed with rough ground, covering about 2 km2. With the aid of some bunting and posters, chairs, tables and PA systems, the organisers had done an amazing job in turning this unpromising site into what reminded me of a cross between a university campus and a humming bazaar.

At any one time there were about 150 fringe meetings going on, in tents, sheds or other makeshift venues. There were also street theatre performances, continuous rolling demonstrations and parades, and a huge array of stalls and stands. There was a sound stage for entertainment in the evenings, and three large areas surrounded by food traders, selling everything from excellent Indian vegetarian curry to fresh French-style croissants.

All through the day, from early in the morning to late in the evening, this unlikely campus was heaving with people. Most wore t-shirts with radical slogans (except yours truly, of course, since I am an impartial civil servant; I just wore running t-shirts but I made sure to leave my stock of Nike t-shirts at home). It was particularly encouraging that there were so many people from the South, for example disadvantaged Indian groups, expressing themselves in a variety of ways, from the discussion groups, to demonstrations, stalls, music and theatre.

I would guess about 30% of the people there were from developed countries, and about 70% from developing countries. There was great camaraderie – I felt a big part of the experience was mutual encouragement and support, as much as learning and consciousness-raising. There was definitely something quite uplifting about the realisation that there are so many people around the world who share your values and are prepared to campaign for them.
My favourite group was the sizeable contingent from Japan. Many wore traditional Japanese outfits, including kimonos, head-bands and gaiters. Most were equipped with two-way radios and ear-pieces, so they were able to communicate across the campus at any time. Many wore face masks: I wasn’t sure if this was a protection against dust or germs, or if it was to protect those around them from their own germs. They campaigned hard and played hard – all in all, a great crowd.

What is it all about, then?

It has become commonplace to observe that the so-called “anti-globalisation” movement is in fact a disparate group of people with sometimes conflicting views.
Many of the people who would identify themselves as anti-globalisation are internationalist in outlook, travel frequently, and value their communications with people around the world. Many of them advocate an end to agricultural subsidies in developed countries, and greater opportunities for fair trade as a way to allow developing countries to grow their way out of poverty. Many would advocate the relaxation of immigration policies in rich countries, to allow more free movement of people. Many would advocate greater interventionism by the international community, for example to stop genocide. Many would advocate stronger multilateral world institutions, such as the international criminal court. All these are arguably examples of advocating greater, rather than less, globalisation.

The contradictions don’t end there. Many of the speakers argue that the causes of poverty are to do with the distribution of political power; but then argue that the world could eliminate poverty by a greater transfer of resources to poor countries. There is deep ambiguity about the extent to which it is acceptable for one country to interfere in the internal affairs of another – such intervention is portrayed as colonialism when it occurs (Afghanistan), and appeasement or complicity when it does not (Rwanda). Some wanted higher labour standards in developing countries; others wanted markets in the north to be opened up to trade from the south.

A common theme: the political power of business

It became clear to me during the five days of the WSF that there is in fact a common theme underlying nearly all the concerns and campaigns that make up the anti-globalisation movement, and that the agenda is more coherent than the description above suggest.

There is a widespread anxiety that globalisation entails the rolling back of the boundaries of the state, to the benefit of business; and that businesses now enjoy political power which is too great. The critiques of privatisation, public private partnerships, liberalisation, intellectual property and patents and trade liberalisation all have at their heart a sense of disquiet that the balance of power between the state and business is tilting in favour of business and away from the citizen.

A stronger version of this is as follows. In liberal societies, the citizens have controlled the state through the democratic process; and the state has controlled business through regulation and laws. But that is being reversed: business is increasingly controlling the state, and the state is controlling the citizen.

I had known, of course, that many campaigners were vehemently opposed to the so-called “new issues” in the trade negotiations (investment agreements, public procurement, etc) but I had assumed that the main problem was that these were a diversion from the real priorities for a development agenda, such as ending the rigged market in agricultural products. I had failed to understand that concern about this agenda stems from a concern that these are all mechanisms are thought to reduce the role of the state in delivering services and regulating the private sector, and so contribute to this shift in power from state to business. In that context, it seems much more comprehensible that there should be so much concern about this agenda.

Yet for some reason very little of this is explicit. Although the biggest claps of the day went to those who denounced big brand international companies, such as Coca Cola or Bechtel, there was very little discourse at the WSF about the underlying relationship between the citizen, the state and the firm.

The evolution of my own views

I arrived with the view that globalisation as it is conventionally understood (meaning greater international economic and social integration) is both inevitable, as a result of falling transport and communications costs, and good for the world as a whole. For me, the big issue is not whether globalisation is good or not, but how the world is going to divide up benefits. Economic theory tells us that there are overall gains from trade; it also tells us that the distribution of those gains depends on the strength of the trading partners. So the key issue is to ensure that the process of globalisation distributes the benefits as much or more to the worlds poor as to the countries that are already rich.

Having heard the debates in Mumbai, and understanding better how much of the debate is in fact about the respective power of the state and business, I am more sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the anti-globalisation movement.

One can think of several examples where the political strength of business is leading to policy choices which are not in the interests of poor people, such as the failure internationally to tackle the crisis of climate change; the creeping use of intellectual property rights not to promote innovation but to benefit companies (see separate article on this here), and the lobbying by the food, drink and tobacco sector against proper regulation of, or even information about, their activities.

Poverty reduction as political change

At some level, all of us who work in development know that the problem of international inequality and poverty is essentially a political problem. The poor do not have sufficient political power to stake their claim on society’s resources.
The WSF gave me an opportunity to think about the implications some more. It seems to me that if the analysis is correct, then it follows that a transfer of resources from rich countries to poor countries – ie, a higher aid budget – is not going to be enough to tackle the problem. We have to understand better the processes that will empower the poor.

And yet this seems so intractable, so we are irresistibly drawn to technocratic challenges of service delivery and resource transfer. I suspect we should be thinking a little more about what contribution we can legitimately make to political empowerment, both within the nation state and internationally.

Conclusion

There were too many stimulating conversations and meetings to list separately. For me, one of the highlights was hearing a lecture by, and meeting, Richard Stallman, the guru of the Free Software movement.

Most of all, however, I came away feeling challenged and energised in roughly equal measure. I am immensely fortunate to have a job in which I have the opportunity to think about these issues, and make some contribution to their solution.

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