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A new war gives new urgency to the globalization debate

Wednesday, Nov 14 2001

The site has been chosen. Concrete barriers are going up. A gymnasium is renamed a ”convergence space.“ Anarchists are buying new cartridges for their gas masks. All signs indicate that the respectful quiet of the post--September 11 world is about to be broken.

World finance ministers are gathering in the Canadian capital of Ottawa this weekend to hold annual high-level economic talks known as the G20. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank will also be there November 16--18, holding meetings they had scheduled for Washington, D.C., before the September airliner attacks. An estimated 100,000 anti-corporate globalization protesters had planned to confront the IMF and the World Bank there, and at least some of globalization‘s most vocal critics are planning to carry the fight to Ottawa.

Over the past two months, most of the environmental groups, trade unions, land-reform movements and anarchist direct-action cells that make up the resistance to corporate globalization agreed that there wasn’t political space for street demonstrations. But the so-called War on Terrorism has polarized the question of poverty and resentment in the developing world, and brought a new urgency to the debate.

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The U.S. and Europe are touting increased free trade as the cure for poverty, and thus as a weapon against terror -- in the words of Colin Powell, ”Hopelessness breeds desperate acts.“ Consequently, the Bush administration is moving to capitalize on wartime support by grabbing globalizing tools that were formerly out of reach. In particular, the administration is leaning heavily on Congress to grant the president Trade Promotional Authority, otherwise known as Fast Track, which would allow Bush to negotiate controversial international treaties, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas document, without input from Congress. Fast Track has been denied the White House since it was taken away from Bush Sr.

The current Bush initiative has Steve Kretzmann, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.--based Institute for Policy Studies, crying foul: ”Any attempt to pass something as important as Fast Track at a time of crisis like this is the very worst kind of political opportunism.“

In fact, critics of globalization say the new conflict only underscores their argument. ”The war has actually moved some analysis in our direction,“ says Soren Ambrose, senior policy analyst with 50 Years Is Enough, a group that seeks radical reform of the decision-making and lending practices of the IMF and the World Bank. ”The question of Islamic anger has brought up foreign-economic-policy issues.“

Kretzmann makes the link explicit: ”If people want to see how urgent it is to solve world poverty, they need look no further than the situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The World Bank and the IMF exacerbate poverty and make this situation worse. They help create breeding grounds for terrorists.“

Messages like this, attached to banners and flown by American protesters even across the border in Canada, certainly seem to risk flaunting the national unity generated in response to September 11. The U.S. is by far the largest stakeholder in the IMF and the World Bank, and the conditions routinely attached to loans to developing nations are designed to increase American access to those markets, and to labor and resources.

But there is already some indication from members of the IMF and the World Bank that they‘ve been listening very carefully to the anti-globalization resistance. ”There’s a kind of rethink that‘s going on right now at the Fund,“ says IMF spokesman William Murray. ”We’ve got this goal of halving world poverty by 2015, which is a new war on poverty [by] the U.N., the World Bank, the IMF and other institutions. To do that . . . the IMF and the World Bank have got to do a better job.“

But Murray is careful to qualify his remarks: ”This anti-globalization movement makes it seem like we have some kind of great, closed-door conspiracy, that the Bildenburgs of the world are taking over. It really doesn‘t happen that way.“

Nor do the activists themselves agree on what would constitute doing a ”better job.“ In the ongoing discussion about the role of global institutions in the fight against poverty and for the protection of workers, human rights and the environment, activist opinion has swung wildly between reform and abolition. Reformers believe that some of the functions of the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and other international institutions are necessary, and should be reshuffled or reassigned to the U.N. Abolitionists want these organizations dismantled.

The ambiguity hasn’t gone unnoticed. A consortium of about 60 of globalization‘s leading critics has organized the International Forum on Globalization, or IFG, which has been grinding away for years to produce a central document. So far, it remains a work in progress.

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