Diminishing returns for the rebels without good cause

  • 5 May 2001

Violent street protests against globalization and capitalism have become part of the contemporary scene. Cities that host major international meetings now know from experience how many riot police and clean-up crews they need to mobilize.

The demonstrators themselves, who claim to champion the world’s poor, are already learning that the law of diminishing returns applies to their impact on the world’s media. Still, as May Day showed, seething crowds battling riot police will always at least have their moment of dubious glory on television.

We had better get used to it, for anti-globalization demos are a spreading phenomenon. The Seattle rioting back in 1999 caught the security agencies off their guards. By the time of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec last month, police were well prepared for the onslaught – and the 34 leaders debated the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas beyond the reach of the demonstrators.

But however effective the precautions – like the London police hemming in protesters in Oxford Circus on May Day – there is another negative aspect that cannot easily be countered. It is the adoption by the half-baked and the self-advertisers of the label “NGO”, standing for non-governmental organization.

Maybe it is politically incorrect to describe the anti-globalization protesters as a lunatic fringe, but those who resort to violence should certainly not be dignified by the name of NGO. They are light-years away from the volunteers of the many real NGOs that serve mankind- such as Médecins sans Fronti¨res, the Red Cross, Oxfam or Amnesty International.

One is entitled to ask when the single-issue pressure groups are going to get real in their efforts to champion the poor. How can any rational person think that attempting to stop globalization, which is impossible anyway, serves the interests of the millions in the developing world whose lives are blighted by poverty?

The have-not countries need the very opposite – a piece of the action so that they can sell their goods on world markets and benefit from the technology and investment that globalization and more open markets bring.

Shortly before May Day, a sombre little story broke that captured little or no attention on TV news bulletins yet should have served as an alarm signal for those who have the interests of the world’s poor at heart. The World Bank released new figures showing that many poor countries will fall short of international targets for reducing poverty and achieving universal education by 2015 – international development goals that have been adopted by the United Nations.

Sub-Saharan African countries in particular are at severe risk of missing the targets. There the number of people in extreme poverty rose from 242 million to 302 million between 1990 and 1998.

In marked contrast, there was a 42% fall over the period in East Asia and the Pacific, down to 267 million. These regions have been the most economically successful in the developing world and have benefited from a lion’s share of foreign direct investment, bringing in capital, knowhow, spending power and jobs. Globalization did not pass them by.

The World Bank tells us that of a global population of just over six billion, 1.2 billion live on less than a dollar day. This slight improvement compared with the 1.3 billion 10 years ago was almost entirely because of the decline of poverty in east Asia.

The statistics remind us just how much needs to be done if all the world’s people are to enjoy a decent life. That millions have no access to safe drinking water, healthcare or education is deplorable. That millions of children in the developing world die every year of poverty is nothing less than heartbreaking.

The way forward is more globalization not less, to integrate all developing countries within the mainstream of the world economy. The poor countries must avoid the risk of being left on the margins.

National economies are already more intertwined than ever before, and they should draw even closer. Ultimately, that is what will make the sweatshops, child labour and starvation wages a nightmare of the past. It is something that the anti-globalization protesters – those rebels without good cause – would do well to learn.