Monday, September 18, 2006

Protests give relevance to world meetings

The Straits Times
Singapore, Sep 18, 2006


By Thang D. Nguyen
for the Straits Times

IN JAKARTA - LIKE other global economic organisations or business alliances such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank attract large demonstrations from anti-globalisation organisations and activists.

The latter see global financial institutions, trade agreements and corporations as undermining the environment, labour rights and even national sovereignty, especially of Third World countries.

In addition to organising protests at conferences of international economic institutions around the world, anti-globalisation activists also hold their own forums as a counterbalance.

The World Social Forum (WSF), for instance, is held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and other places around the world at the same time as the WEF holds its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

While they share a similar conference structure - complete with plenary sessions, workshops, cultural events and sometimes even the same speakers - the WEF and WSF are antithetical in every sense of the word.

The WEF's participants are mostly CEOs and senior executives who come to town in suits, stay and dine in five-star hotels and pay a handsome fee to network with the world's shakers and movers.

At the WSF, participants are often unkempt-looking activists with backpacks who have paid no fee to attend and who rub shoulders with Brazilian landless peasants, Colombian trade unionists, Indian dalit (formerly 'untouchables') or African debt-relief campaigners.

Whereas the WEF gets thorough and respectful coverage in the media, the WSF is mostly invisible.

"The spectacular turnout in Mumbai for the WSF last year of around 100,000 people from more than 100 countries, as well as the presence of heavyweight political and academic figures was, for the conservative
Wall Street Journal (WSJ), not newsworthy enough even for an acknowledgement of the event's existence.

"By contrast, coverage for the Davos event was plentiful: The WSJ reported on the World Economic Forum three times, while The New York Times ran six stories on the summit," wrote Mr Vince Medeiros, who studied the media coverage of the two events last year.

And while participants at meetings such as the WEF are welcomed by their national or local hosts, anti-globalisation activists are not.

The reason is that the former bring with them revenue, business and prestige, while the latter too often cause violence and may even damage public infrastructure.

For instance, the Group of Eight Summit protest in Genoa, Italy, from July 18 to 22, 2001, was one of the bloodiest protests in Western Europe's recent history. Several hundred people were injured and one died.

This is perhaps why Singapore is not allowing demonstrations outside the venue of the ongoing IMF-World Bank meetings.

Instead, the Singapore Government-appointed organising committee for the event has provided demonstrators with a 10m by 14m space inside the lobby of the Suntec City Convention Centre, where the meetings are being held. Demonstrators will also have to abide by set of rules if they wish to protest inside the venue.

Given these factors, participants at the IMF-World Bank meetings can rest assured that there will be no noise and disturbance from the demonstrators.

However, why should the protesters want to demonstrate if they can only be seen but not heard?

For this reason, anti-globalisation activists and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have decided to hold their demonstrations and social forums in parallel with the IMF-World Bank meeting on the Indonesian island of Batam instead.

The Batam authorities initially did not allow these events to take place, but later gave them the go-ahead.

While Indonesia is in no position to compete with Singapore economically, the decision to allow anti-IMF-World Bank events to take place in Batam reflects a respect for freedom of expression befitting the world's third-largest democracy.

More importantly, the fact that activists and NGOs can demonstrate against meetings of global economic institutions show that these organisations are still relevant.

Indeed, the day that anti-globalisation activists stop following and protesting against meetings of the IMF and World Bank as well as of their fellow organisations around the world, is the day that they no longer matter.

The writer was regional manager for Asia at the World Economic Forum. He is now a Jakarta-based columnist.

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