Peter Willetts, Professor of Global Politics
Can Globalisation be Tamed?
The Language of Social Science
Social Scientists have the advantage over Natural Scientists in that everyday language can be used to describe society. As a result, the work of Social Scientists can be understood by the non-expert, lay-person. The corresponding disadvantage is that we can easily assume that we are all speaking the same language meaning the same thing by the same words when we do not. In reality, the very words we use have contested meanings. Let me illustrate the problem.
In Physics there is a precise definition of "power". In everyday language, we live with ambiguity. Saying "That is a powerful car" may mean the car can drive at high speeds, or it has no problem with steep hills, or that it has an impressive appearance. For the Physicist there is a different precise meaning, the power of a car is measured by its rate of consuming energy when it moves.
In Politics it is often said "The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world." I would disagree with this statement, not because I dispute the fact that the President is commander of a terrifying array of military forces, but because I disagree with defining power in military terms. That might sound as if I am making a moral statement, and I am, but I am also making an analytical statement. United States armed forces cannot be used to defend the exchange rate of the dollar, and their use has at times been counter-productive for US prestige and US goals.
I have laboured this point about language, because two of the central concepts I am discussing this evening are contested concepts. There is no general agreement on what is meant by globalisation nor on what is meant by an NGO, a non-governmental organisation.
What is globalisation?
The first ambiguity about globalisation is whether it encompasses a condition, which already exists or a process of change towards some new condition in the future. I will concentrate on the idea of change.
It is far more important that there is ambiguity about the content of the change.
Globalisation usually means economic change, the process of global economic integration
To most people this is the global spread of capitalism, a new phase in the history of capitalism. Especially when linked to
It would generally be acknowledged that underlying the economic change has been a technological revolution in communications
Sociologists would point out that the economic and technological change have created a third dimension of cultural globalisation.
I have been arguing in my own work for the last two decades that there is also political globalisation. To me, political globalisation encompasses
Combined, these can be seen as creating a global political system.
The impact of these five processes of political change is encompassed in another new term global governance. This has not yet entered general public debate, but I would predict you will hear much more of global governance in the near future, because of the debate now occurring in preparation for the next Earth Summit, to be held in August 2002 in South Africa.
I would argue that each of the four dimensions of globalisation is dependent upon the other three. The technology made possible economic, cultural and political globalisation, but the technology would not necessarily have been used. We have had the possibility of global trade for 500 years, but the economics of shipping and the politics of trade liberalisation determine the volume of trade as well. Even with electronic communications a crucial part of the revolution is how little it costs. How often would you send an e-mail, if it cost £10 per message?
The political revolution is that individual people can now communicate cheaply, from wherever they are located on the earth to anybody anywhere it is technically possible. The costs may be too high for individual poor people, particularly in developing countries, but they are not too high for NGOs representing poor people, even if only indirectly.
The third problem about the term, globalisation, is that those who are benefiting from the processes of change generally assert globalisation is beneficial for everybody. On the other hand, the anti-globalisation movement of both intellectuals and street protesters assert it is universally evil. There are a few maverick individuals. George Soroos, who has been such a successful speculator, argues the global financial system is dangerously unstable and must be regulated. Clare Short, our minister for development, argues that globalisation is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil. The outcome depends upon the political choices we make now. Her White Paper in December 2000 is subtitled Making Globalisation Work for the Poor. She asserts the poor can benefit, if and only if we make the right political choices. Many were vituperative about the White Paper and critics quickly turned round the title to "Making the poor work for globalisation".
I agree with Jan Aart Scholte of the University of Warwick, arguing in his book, Globalization. A Critical Introduction, that globalisation must mean something distinct and something new. He denies the value of seeing globalisation in terms of internationalisation or liberalisation or universalisation or westernisation. We do not add anything to these words by using the new word, globalisation.
What is new, he argues, and I would argue as well, is the compression of time and space. The technology is fundamentally new and use of the technology is having unprecedented economic, social and political effects. For many groups of people, territorial boundaries have broken down. We live in a global village, in which social relations are not necessarily constrained by geographical distance.
With respect to political globalisation, the most important aspect of the shift from an international system or, more accurately, from an intergovernmental system to global governance is the rise of non-governmental organisations as participants in global politics.
What is a non-governmental organisation?
Let us now consider, what is an non-governmental organisation?
The term non-governmental organisation is 56 years old. We can be that precise. It comes from the UN Charter and was not in general use before 1945. When 132 international NGOs decided to co-operate with each other in 1910, they did so under the label, the Union of International Associations. The League of Nations officially referred to its "liaison with private organisations", while many of these bodies at that time called themselves international institutes, international unions or simply international organisations.
The first draft of the UN Charter tabled by the governments of the USA, the Soviet Union, Britain and China, concentrated on the diplomacy of peace and war. At the San Francisco conference, a combination of small countries and NGOs widened the agenda of the UN, giving much greater importance to economic, social and cultural questions and to human rights. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN was upgraded to the status of a principal organ on a par with the Security Council. Then the NGOs lobbied successfully to have the right of access to ECOSOC. The lawyers wanted to make sure the international NGOs would not have the same status as the new UN specialised agencies, such as UNESCO and the FAO.
Thus, the term NGOs was coined to distinguish private organisations from specialised agencies established by governments. It remained as diplomatic jargon for some three decades.
The UN had to decide what groups would be granted consultative status. The practice of the NGO Committee shows that the following criteria have to be met. An NGO must
Notice that the exclusion of companies, political parties, some human rights groups, guerrilla groups and of course criminal gangs means that the term NGO does not have its literal meaning. It does not include all groups that are non-governmental. The exclusions are not as extensive as might appear at first sight. International federations of political parties and international associations of companies are accepted as NGOs.
Thus, in my work, I have always defined an NGO as any organisation that actually has or is eligible to have consultative status with the UN. Most people follow this approach, but they often wear blinkers and fail to acknowledge the diversity of the NGO world. Those interested in development or the environment or human rights think of the organisations from their own field and are surprised to find churches, trades unions or commercial associations are NGOs at the UN.
Many environmentalists are angry that transnational corporations have access to the system and deny that commercial associations can be called NGOs. Many trade unionists also hate trade unions being called NGOs.
On the one hand, many people claim NGOs hold the moral high ground in global politics. I am embarrassed that, when I produced a book on NGOs at the UN, my publishers forced on me the sanctimonious title, The Conscience of the World. On the other hand, both governments who are criticised by NGOs and the radicals in the anti-globalisation movement attack the legitimacy of NGOs. In particular, NGOs that engage in global governance are seen by the radicals as having been corrupted and co-opted by the system.
My position is firstly that it is useful to have a broad general term, but we must remember the extraordinary diversity of the social, economic, cultural, religious and political groups covered by the term. Secondly, nobody can support all NGOs or be opposed to all NGOs, because there is substantial contention between different NGOs.
How do non-governmental organisations work in the UN system?
The wording of Article 71 of the UN Charter is very vague, in referring to "arrangements for consultation" with NGOs, and easily could have meant nothing as consultation does not really mean political influence. Indeed there is a similar wording in the Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organisation: Article V provides that
In practice this only means access to the secretariat and not to the meetings. The NGOs are furious that they do not even have access to the documents of the WTO. To come back to the UN NGOs worked hard and gained participation rights through a series of haphazard decisions at the first sessions of ECOSOC. In 1950, the situation was reviewed and the rights were codified in a statute for NGOs. With a few amendments, this statute remains in force today.
The three levels of consultative status for NGOs
The participation rights for NGOs
Many people have referred to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 as being "unprecedented" in the way NGOs increased the intensity and scope of their involvement in the United Nations. In reality, the UN Conference on the Human Environment of 1972 in Stockholm was far more important. Since Stockholm, NGO have steadily expanded in numbers, in status and in their global coverage. They have also in practice, but not in theory, gained the right to participate in intergovernmental negotiations. The Rio conference in 1992 did make one significant difference to the UN's arrangements for NGOs. It led to ECOSOC engaging in a full review of the NGO Statute, which took three and a half years from February 1993 to July 1996. Virtually all aspects of the consultative arrangements were unchanged, except for a decision to admit "national" NGOs alongside the international NGOs.
The Rio conference of 1992 led to the creation of a new policy-making body in the UN system. A Commission for Sustainable Development was placed under ECOSOC. Its task is to review the implementation of the environmental policy endorsed at Rio in the document called, Agenda 21. At Rio everybody realised the sustainable development could not be achieved solely by the actions of governments. Nine chapters of Agenda 21 were devoted to the role of different sectors of society in promoting sustainable development.
The term "Major Groups" became another piece of UN jargon. It is only used to refer to the nine specific groups in this list and it is only used in the context of global environmental politics. No more than a moment's thought is required to notice the arbitrary nature of the list. It includes women, but not men; the young, but not the elderly; indigenous peoples, but not other minority groups; trades unions, but not professional associations; industry, but not services; natural scientists, but not social scientists; and farmers, but not fishing communities. It is illogical in including one level of government, local authorities, among the sectors of civil society. It is also illogical in including NGOs as one of the nine categories of groups of NGOs. What people had in mind at Rio was that there should be a separate category for environmental and development NGOs. This category is useful, because it acts as a residual category, allowing any groups not covered by the rest of the list to be included.
The nine Major Groups have become the basis for organising NGOs into constituencies in the CSD. The role of the NGOs has been greatly extended in the work of this Commission. In particular, each session of the CSD opens with a "stakeholder dialogue". For a couple of days, the Major Groups that are considered to be most relevant to the agenda topics for that session are given the floor to present their views. For example, in 2001 there were dialogues on energy and on transport, led by five Major Groups, before the diplomats took up their formal debate on these topics.
As part of my current research, I interviewed 68 government delegates to the Commission on Sustainable Development at its ninth session in April 2001. With a quota sample, I achieved a good balance between the different regions of the world. I was also able to obtain a good mix of ordinary delegates, heads of delegations and Bureau members who lead the political process. There is not enough time to present a detailed analysis of this survey, but I would like to highlight some of the results.
The delegates were asked to say whether they agreed with, or disagreed with, a set of attitude statements. The following results were obtained.
I was astonished by the extent to which NGO participation in the Commission was seen as being fully legitimate, as is shown by Table 1. Only one delegate suggested that NGOs did not belong in an intergovernmental forum.
Delegates were also willing to agree that NGOs made a political difference, as may be seen in Table 2. The agreement with the idea that NGOs influence the North is greater than the figure for influence upon the South, because delegates from the South were rather less willing to acknowledge they were influenced.
Although the involvement of business in global environmental politics is controversial among NGOs, there was overwhelming support among government delegates for business and industry having access as a Major Group.
Several criticisms of NGOs are quite common in public debate and these criticisms were put to the delegates. The majority showed respect for NGO leaders and disagreed with the idea that they are arrogant and unrepresentative. However, there was a feeling that NGOs from developing countries are under-represented in the work of the Commission. This led to divisions among the delegates over the question whether global NGOs really only represent Northern interests.
Government delegates to the Commission on Sustainable Development were happy to recommend their system should be adopted by the Bretton Woods institutions and by the World Trade Organisation. However, they were divided on the question of Major Groups having formal membership of bodies coming under the UN Economic and Social Council.
The influence of NGOs in global environment politics is well recognised. They have put environment issues on the global agenda; they have helped negotiate environmental regimes; and they have monitored the implementation of global agreements. NGOs have also been crucial to the global politics of human rights. It is less well recognised how NGOs have been central to women's rights, development issues and arms control negotiations. There have been spectacular successes in recent years
All these campaigns are particularly impressive because they have succeeded in the face of intense opposition from the United States government. Although NGOs have no military capabilities and most of them have very limited economic resources, it cannot be said that NGOs have no power. There is real power in the ability to communicate, to draw attention to issues and to mobilise support for their values.
Why is there hostility towards the global economic institutions?
In as much as economic globalisation is driven by technological change, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation cannot be blamed for the impact of economic change. To the extent that these three intergovernmental organisations steer the change or promote the change, they are responsible.
What economic changes are occurring? What harm are they causing? The way we answer these questions depends upon our political priorities. My own perspective is to ask what is the impact on global poverty.
1) The liberalisation of trade and the impact on economic growth
Firstly, it must be said that it is a myth of the anti-globalisation protesters that the number of people in poverty is increasing. It is not. There has been economic growth in most developing countries and some of that growth has reached the poor. In most countries where there is no growth, the reasons are local. Civil wars, oppressive governments and corruption prevent growth, as we can see so dramatically in Somalia, the Congo or Zimbabwe.
However, trade liberalisation and the growth of trade is undoubtedly a combination of technological change, economic change and political change. The political change has been led primarily by the IMF and the WTO. Developing countries governments have been forced to open their markets, while the rich countries engage in protectionism. Most developing countries are trapped into exporting primary commodities at low prices. Indeed, this problem virtually defines what is a developing country.
The problems they face are
But notice that all these problems are due to the denial of free-trade. The only conceivable way we can destroy the evils of the CAP or the MFA or tariff escalation is through pressure from the WTO. What is more the WTO is already moving, albeit slowly, in this direction.
There is another problem about trade in primary commodities. It is inherently unstable. It is physically impossible for a free market to exist. I would argue that it is better to regulate commodity trade through global institutions than through natural disasters. At the moment the main determinants of commodity prices are systemic pressures towards over-production, moderated by hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, frosts, plant diseases and mining accidents. The answer must be for the WTO Development Round of trade negotiations to allow global commodity organisations to create exemptions from so-called free trade.
2) The volatility of the global financial system
The crisis in SE Asia in 1997, in Russia and Brazil in 1998 and the crisis in Argentina now have been deeply damaging to those countries and cause real suffering among the poor. The wider effects of these crises are to inhibit investment flows to all developing countries. The scale of such crises have at times threatened a collapse in the whole global financial system. These are massive problems. Again, in virtually all cases, the individual governments have made a major contribution to the crises. Nobody knows how to solve them, but nobody thinks they can be solved without global political regulation of global financial markets. This process has started in the IMF and in the Basle Committee. Due to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the UN Security Council has also taken extensive powers to promote monitoring of financial flows. In total these responses are not adequate, but we need a stronger and not a weaker IMF. Political globalisation must control unstable financial globalisation.
3) The damage caused by structural adjustment programmes
Orthodox economists blame the debt crisis in developing countries on poor economic policy-making by developing country governments. The answer according to the Washington Consensus was deregulation, liberalisation, devaluation and reduction in government expenditure. These policies were enforced and enforced is not too strong a word by the IMF in the 1980s. Undoubtedly the immense suffering caused to the poor was a result of globalisation. Firstly, there was the impact of economic globalisation, with Reagan and Thatcher's deflationary policies, along with the oil price rises of 1979 to 1986, translating normal development debts into unpayable debts. Secondly, there was the political globalisation of policies being enforced on most developing countries, although in most cases they could not possibly succeed.
Here the criticisms of the global economic institutions by the NGOs and the anti-globalisation movement are at their most powerful.
4) Problems of economic change in Northern countries
In the United States it is clear that some of the opposition to free trade is expressed in terms of concern about the loss of jobs and some in terms of opposition to global institutions having an impact upon the US economy. This produced a strange alliance at Seattle between trade unionists and right-wing isolationists. Whatever their motives, their approach was simply protectionism. Similar forces are at play, in a much weaker form in Europe.
While there are genuine problems in trying to achieve structural adjustment in Northern countries, I have no sympathy for protectionism that prevents growth in developing countries. The loss of jobs in labour intensive industries and low technology industries in richer countries is economic globalisation that should be promoted by global institutions.
The anti-globalisation movement is an incoherent coalition. Development NGOs are making alliances with their opponents, when they join with protectionists.
5) Global environmental crises.
There are tremendous global problems of
but how many of these problems are due to globalisation, per se. Most of the environment crises are worsened by growth in harmful economic activity. That is not the same as saying they are caused by economic globalisation and even less that they are caused by global economic institutions. Some countries have policies that protect the environment and some do not.
Political globalisation is producing environmental regimes and some of them are successfully reversing environmental destruction. Where this is not occurring one can point to specific governments as being responsible the United States for global warming, the EU and Japan for marine fisheries, and Indonesia for rainforests..
The World Bank is now one of the forces promoting environment regimes. The WTO is accused of putting free trade above environmental protection, but that is a false accusation. I could come back to that controversial statement in questions, if you wish. [The WTO accepts CITES, Codex Alimentarius and turtle protection in shrimp fishing.] The IMF seems to be accused, in a contradictory manner, both of preventing growth and encouraging damaging growth.
Criticism of the failure to do more about environmental degradation is more appropriately addressed at individual governments than at the global institutions. The answer is stronger global environmental governance not less globalisation.
Could NGOs influence global economic policy-making?
I have argued that the global economic and environmental institutions can be used
In these three policy domains, NGOs can and should work with the global institutions. They need to bring their expertise, their commitment and innovatory ideas to the policy-making table.
But what of the fourth policy-domain? How can NGOs deal with structural adjustment? Crude policies promoting economic change with no consideration of human rights, social welfare, economic equity or environmental damage such policies cannot be accepted. However, to engage in a political debate with the institutions imposing structural adjustment does not automatically mean you compromise in any way with the arguments of your opponents.
Is there any point, in trying to challenge the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO? Yes, because NGOs have already made a significant difference.
I believe more has been achieved with the World Bank, precisely because NGOs have engaged more with the World Bank. Mechanisms also need to be found to ensure that NGOs can also bring political questions onto the agenda for economic policy-making at the IMF and the WTO.
We are now at the stage in the global system that the economically advanced countries were in one hundred years ago. Unbridled capitalism was generating many social, economic and political problems. The answer in all advanced countries was to regulate capitalism. Health and safety, social welfare and environmental standards have to be set by government to create a level playing field in the market. All governments regulate all companies domestically to prevent criminality and fraud.
We have deregulated at the country level. We are starting to re-regulate at the global level. Governments and NGOs can interact in intergovernmental organisations to create global governance. Therefore, economic globalisation can be tamed by stronger political globalisation.
Copyright: Peter Willetts, 2002