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Global Failures in Need of Local Solutions

by Naomi Klein



A funny thing happened at an international gathering on the devastating effects of economic globalization: hope. No, wait - better than that: joy.

The Global Teach-In, held in Berkeley, Calif. a week ago, brought together leading scientists, activists and researchers to examine the real impacts of a single world market. Close to 2,000 people gathered to hear speeches on cultural sovereignty, technol ogy, the distribution of wealth, the environment and democracy.

Don't get me wrong - it wasn't pretty. We heard that in communities all over the globe, the same backward struggles are being fought: the closing of cherished hospitals, the corporatization of education, the abandonment of urban centres, the dismantling o f environmental protection, food shortages, escalating homelessness and rapid depletion of natural resources.

So why was everyone so happy? Precisely because the failures of globalization have become self-evident. It is increasingly clear that the stuff that makes stocks soar and markets grow isn't trickling down at all. The numbers are in: global competitiveness is being used to beat everyone over the head. There are food riots in Pakistan and Mexico, massive strikes in South Korea, France, Brazil and right here in Toronto.

According to the World Bank, the number of people worldwide living in "absolute poverty" has gone from 800 million in 1972 to 1.3 billion today - this at a time when economists are declaring a "third golden wave" of economic growth. It doesn't take a geni us to figure out that when all over the world, things are getting worse for people and better for business, the system isn't working. And that, said Lori Wallach, a leading critic of trade agreements with the Washington-based group Public Citizen, is why there is finally cause for hope.

"The real life outcomes are so awful that they give us the ammo to jujitsu the corporate utopia right back at their heads,'' she said, throwing a copy of NAFTA off the podium.

There was a sense that the simple act of getting together and putting local struggles in a global context made change inevitable. After all, the engines behind economic globalization meet many times a year - at G-7 Economic Summits, World Bank meetings an d the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On the other hand, the people struggling to protect their communities rarely connect with those fighting similar battles elsewhere. When they do, the evidence is so overwhelming, the common ground so uncanny, that an international resistance movement begi ns to emerge almost on its own accord.

If corporations are free to scour the globe for the lowest wages and most lenient environmental and social regulations, then the response from labor, human rights and environmental groups must also take place on the global stage.

Labor leaders spoke of building links between laid-off workers in the North and exploited workers in the South. There was talk of a tax on foreign exchange transactions, a NAFTA accountability act, a three-strikes-and-you're-out rule for corporate crimina ls, global plebiscites and a global minimum wage. Jean-Pierre Page, director of France's largest labor union, spoke of "national movements with international campaigns."

What is being proposed is not a kinder, gentler global economy, but an internationally co-ordinated return to more community-based decision making. The idea of a global social justice movement, however, represents a drastic shift for the people who have b een fighting for national sovereignty in their countries for decades. Maude Barlow, whose work fighting free trade in Canada has made her a leader in the emerging anti-globalization movement, put it this way: "It's the elite of all countries versus the ge neral population. We're on the edge of a new global consciousness."

A good place to test these newly forged alliances is on the recently leaked Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The global treaty, which could come before the House of Commons by the fall, would make it illegal for countries to try to prevent job flight or to impose job creation or community reinvestment provisions on foreign investors.

This too, I think, is a sign of hope. The MAI is a pre-emptive strike against any future attempts to control the flow of capital. That means the corporations themselves see the transience of their current moment of global triumph. They know that sooner or later, democratically minded people will want to take control over their lives. And that, said one speaker is "why it's so exciting to be alive."

This editorial was published in the Times Colonist (the Victoria, BC, daily newspaper) as a guest editorial on Apr 22 and had appeared in the Toronto Star on April 21.

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