During the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last year, they trashed a Starbucks and other brand-name stores.
Last month, as political and economic leaders kibitzed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, they smashed up a McDonald’s.
Who are “they,” and what do they want? For the most part, they are hooligans whose values and philosophies are no more sophisticated than their means of protest: trash cans heaved through plate-glass windows.
Unfortunately, they ride in on the coattails of groups and individuals with very real worries about the global future. These serious activists who are concerned that a coterie of politicians and CEOs are unilaterally launching a brave new world that the majority is having little hand in designing, but will be expected to inhabit with gratitude and obeisance.
Nevertheless, these recent rampages have been a wakeup call. Many in the business and political elite are only now realizing that, for many in civil society, it’s not just the economy, stupid. Prosperity means many things to many people. More importantly, massive layoffs, environmental degradation, and cultural homogeneity are not acceptable side effects of economic efficiency.
At Davos, Bill Clinton put it this way: “Trade can no longer be the private preserve of governments, CEOs and trade experts . . . We must find a way to let the dissenters have their say.”
Having a “say” is, to say the least, an understatement. Those averse to corporate hegemony are far too numerous, and their concerns too diverse, to be quantified simply as “dissenters.” They include environmental groups, representatives of labor, fair trade organizations, government and NGO leaders from developing and developed countries, and members of civil society who simply do not want to abdicate democratic decision-making to the unilateral whims of multinationals.
Ensuring the creation of a global society that respects the needs and diversity of all peoples, nations, and business interests, will require cooperative, democratic decision-making and concerted action.
So where to begin?
Trust and mutual respect are essential first steps, but this is obviously not going to be accomplished with tossed trash cans, nor with corporate policies and public works projects forced down the throats of consumers and citizens. It can only be generated through the development of an ongoing dialogue among business, government and nongovernment organizations, those representing citizens’ concerns.
A historic example of this sort of dialogue took place Jan. 17 in Hawaii at the U.S.-Japan Civil Society Organization (CSO) Forum. The forum brought together representatives of NGOs, government and corporations, in an effort to promote cooperation among the three sectors and to address urgent global issues. The meeting also marked the launch of a new partnership between the U.S.-Japan Common Agenda Public Private Partnership (P3), a nongovernmental initiative in the U.S., and the Common Agenda CSO Network, a newly formed coalition of civil-society groups in Japan.
The forum was the largest-ever gathering of NGOs from Japan and the U.S. Over 70 people took part, including representatives of 49 organizations, divided almost evenly between Japan and the U.S. Participants discussed present and future collaboration on environment, health and other issues.
The American Council for Voluntary International Action (InterAction) hosted the forum along with the Common Agenda CSO Network. InterAction is a coalition of over 170 nonprofit organizations working worldwide for sustainable development, refugee and disaster assistance, and humanitarian aid.
“The conference far surpassed expectations,” says Richard Forrest, the InterAction Coordinator for P3. “There have been smaller such meetings in the past, but this was the first that resulted in plans so concrete and varied.”
Active corporate participation also made the gathering unusual. Forrest noted that some corporations and CEOs are now working closely with NGOs, and he hopes more nongovernment groups, both NGOs and corporations, will recognize the need for, and benefits of, multilateral dialogue and cooperation.
Kaori Kuroda, P3 project liaison officer in Tokyo, agrees. “It is important for U.S. and Japanese NGOs to work together on issues which are so politically sensitive that governments have difficulty in dealing with them,” she says.
Participants released a statement at the end of the forum, recognizing that “Japan and the United States share a common concern for regional and global political, economic, and social stability,” notably the need to combat “threats to the global environment.”
The statement confirms that “Clearly these complex issues cannot be addressed effectively by governments alone; they require the complementary efforts of the corporate sector and civil-society organizations.”
Following the forum, the U.S.-Japan Common Agenda held a two-day symposium, “Partnership for Global Issues in the Asia-Pacific.” The U.S.-Japan Common Agenda is a bilateral government initiative, launched in 1993, and aims to deal with global concerns. The conference attracted 180 participants from civil society and the corporate community, as well as officials from USAID, the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, Japan’s Foreign Ministry, and Japanese aid agencies.
After the symposium, representatives of civil-society organizations made a historic, first-ever report to an official U.S.-Japan governmental consultation meeting. NGO observers hope that this is a harbinger of more frequent and deeper discussions between government and civil-society organizations.
“Because their combined influence is so great, what America and Japan do can make or break prospects for global sustainability,” says Forrest. “Our governments acknowledge the need to work together on global challenges. The real key now is how well can governments overcome bureaucratic inertia and truly listen to, and work in partnership with, civil-society organizations.”