A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Activists on Internet Reshaping Rules for Global Economy

Chicago Tribune

July 5, 1999

By R.C. Longworth

They operate from cluttered offices and the conference rooms of airport hotels. The Internet is their weapon, and indignation often is their fuel. Few people have ever heard of them, but they are beginning to reshape the rule-making for the global economy.

Depending on your point of view, people such as Lori Wallach, Mark Weisbrot and Charles Arden-Clarke are noble warriors fighting to bring the benefits of the global economy to the average person, or they are a band of hazily financed "vigilantes," as the Financial Times of London called them, out to torpedo globalization.

Wallach, Weisbrot and Arden-Clarke are three of thousands of activists and lobbyists around the world working, sometimes alone, sometimes in coalition, for the myriad groups known collectively as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs for short. Their targets are the many negotiations going on around the world, often in secret, to write the new rules and regulations for the global economy. In the process, these activists are baffling and often infuriating the business groups, government officials and global experts who until now have had this rule-making all to themselves.

But global governance is as new as the global economy itself. What's happening in this economic arena are the first skirmishes in a battle for power and control that will stretch well into the 21st Century. NGOs are in the thick of the battle.

Most recently, some 600 NGOs working together defeated an attempt by 29 of the world's richest nations, including the United States, to write a treaty on foreign investment. The NGOs charged that the proposed global treaty, seemingly a technical exercise, would override local and national laws on the environment and the rights of women and minorities. Despite angry denials by the governments, the NGOs won and the talks collapsed.

Wallach is director of the Global Trade Watch for Public Citizen, the Washington-based consumer organization founded by Ralph Nader. Weisbrot is research director for the Preamble Center, a small think tank and activist group in Washington, D.C. Arden-Clarke oversees trade and investment for the World Wide Fund for Nature, on the outskirts of Geneva in Switzerland. They and others like them belong to the vast and growing world of NGOs.

There are probably some 30,000 international NGOs, with more springing up every day. They range from such giants as CARE, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund to one-room outfits armed with little more than a filing cabinet, a laptop and a frequent-flier card. The global vigilantes are learning the system and discovering how to make their voices heard. As they do, they are slowly winning access to the inner circles, where the rules-writers are working to cope with them.

The rise of the NGOs is also an exercise in democracy, sort of. The governance of the global economy is moving from the control of elected national governments into the hands of unelected global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, also known as WTO, and the International Monetary Fund, known as the IMF. The self-appointed role of the NGOs is to inject a democratic voice into these institutions, but they themselves are non-democratic groups, privately financed and answerable not to voters but to their funders. The final balance is far from settled.

Actually, NGOs have been around for decades. American and European NGOs fought the slave trade in the early 19th Century. More recently, NGOs spearheaded the 1998 treaty banning land mines and the Rome treaty setting up the International Criminal Court and are key players in delivering aid in Kosovo. "Anyone who has been involved in negotiation of international environmental treaties knows that NGOs are the animating force, not public officials of nation states," said Henry Perritt Jr., dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, in a recent speech in Chicago.

If the global economy is powered by technology and instant communications, so are the NGOs. The Internet keeps them in touch with like-minded NGOs in other nations and enables them to leap borders--just like global corporations but unlike politicians or political parties, whose activity is nation-based.

Many NGOs, such as CARE or Rotary International, concentrate not on politics but on delivering aid or sponsoring international programs. The political activism comes from NGOs such as Wallach's Public Citizen and several thousand other organizations, many focusing on single issues such as labor, women or the environment.

Their finest hour so far came last year, when more than 600 NGOs, welded into a loose coalition, defeated the attempt by the world's 29 richest nations to write a Multilateral Agreement on Investment, known as MAI. The talks, held in a basement room at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, broke down after publication of the text of the draft agreement stirred broad political opposition, especially in Canada and France.

"Those talks were secret, which was outrageous," recalls Wallach, who coordinated the American NGOs involved in the campaign. "So we put out an international dragnet, with contacts with governments and agency officials."

In the spring of 1997, "we liberated three different copies of the text," Wallach says. This text was leaked by the Canadian delegation, which feared that MAI, by loosening limits on foreign investment, would swamp Canadian culture with a wave of Disney-style American culture. The Canadian delegation gave it to the Council of Canadians, the leading anti-MAI Canadian NGO, which passed it on to Public Citizen. Using the Internet, Public Citizen and other organizations quickly circulated the text and their own interpretations of it, particularly to NGOs representing women, labor or the environment, all of which had their own reasons for fearing MAI. Stories began to appear in the press, and pressure grew on governments. What had been technical talks involving bureaucrats suddenly became a political issue involving cabinet ministers.

"This is the democratization of foreign economic policy," said Weisbrot of the Preamble Center. "With the Internet, it's all more rapid. Before, the whole treaty wouldn't have been known about until it was too late to stop it." Preamble and other organizations kept up a computerized drumbeat of information, think pieces in newspapers, analyses and arguments to groups around the world.

"Each country had a centralized organization that just looked at MAI," said Weisbrot, a native Chicagoan. "There was the World Development Movement in Britain, Ecoropa in France, the Third World Network in Malaysia. "We had a joint MAI listserv, with 2,000 people on it," he said. "If there was a discussion over dinner in Geneva, there would be something on the listserv the next morning."

The national anti-MAI groups formed MAI International, which coordinated strategy, sometimes over the Internet, sometimes in face-to-face meetings. "There's a limit to the Internet," Weisbrot said. "You really can't build trust over it. It's better for sharing information. But to coordinate strategy between people with 30 different interests, you really have to sit down with them."

Because of the battle over MAI and similar skirmishes with the WTO, "governments are taking us seriously now," he said. "They don't know exactly what to do with us but they do know that the old way doesn't work." The old way, for most international organizations, is surrounded by secrecy, private documents and closed meetings. Compared with the relatively open U.S. system, most governments operate behind closed doors, and international organizations reflect this.

The United Nations has accredited some 1,500 NGOs, and the World Bank involves NGOs in about half its projects. But most of the negotiations on the new global economy go on in other organizations--the WTO, OECD, the Bank for International Settlements, all bureaucratic bodies dealing with arcane and highly technical subjects--that have existed outside the glare of press or political scrutiny and aren't accustomed to dealing with it.

The WTO says it has put in a public gallery in its council chamber, invites some NGOs to observe major meetings and holds regular informal briefings for NGOs. This new openness doesn't come naturally. "All our meetings and sessions and panels are closed," said Keith Rockwell, the WTO spokesman in Geneva. "We're trying to set up informal talks with the NGOs, but there's no formal structure yet."

"The progress has been extremely slow," said Arden-Clarke, whose Fund for Nature tries to get the WTO trade negotiators in Geneva to take environmental issues seriously. Most often, he said, it gets its information not from official WTO documents but from leaks from delegations. But "the days of negotiating international treaties behind closed doors are numbered, if not over," Stephen Kobrin, a Wharton School professor, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

In trade and other negotiations, the NGOs are learning how to work the system, Arden-Clarke said. "We honed our skills on MAI and, in the next round of WTO (trade) talks, we'll hone them further," he said. "We've learned how to hold coalitions together. We're learning how to influence negotiations--that we have to apply influence in national capitals on time, to influence national positions in international talks."

Another thing the NGOs are learning, he said, is "how badly governments work." Many global economic negotiations, he said, are run by economic ministries, such as the U.S. Commerce Department, often without the knowledge or input of environmental ministries, such as the U.S. Interior Department. "The environmental ministries often know nothing about what's going on," he said. NGOs can often stir up debates within governments and influence global negotiations "just by telling the left hand what the right hand is doing."

Global bodies such as the WTO "are learning that they have to talk to us at the beginning," he added. "If they come up with an agreement without doing this, NGOs can swing votes back home." Arden-Clarke, Wallach and others said this is the point at which NGOs plug into democracy, by telling political parties and elected officials in individual countries what's happening at global levels. If successful, they said, they can influence domestic political action, which, in turn, affects each nation's policies in global talks.

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