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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 September, 2003, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
WTO protesters: Where are they now?
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Four years on from the Seattle protests widely seen as heralding the coming of age of the anti-globalisation movement, BBC News Online looks at what has become of that group ahead of the latest round of global trade talks in Cancun, Mexico next week.

Protester is carried away by police in Seattle
Seattle brought the anti-globalisation movement to public attention
The march towards greater economic liberalisation may have continued, but the past four years have seen some encouraging developments for those opposed to free trade, or at least unhappy with what they see as the unfettered power of the multinationals and the way in which the WTO facilitates their agenda.

Firms have been keen to stress their ethical credentials as survey after survey shows consumers and shareholders alike are taking a much closer interest in companies' records on labour rights and ecological standards.

Non-governmental organisations concerned about the poor are frequently invited to give their opinions to governments, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Key issues at the trade talks

The collapse of US energy giant Enron meanwhile, provided the kind of advertisement against rampant capitalism that anti-globalisation campaigners could only have dreamed of before 2001.

'Other worlds are possible'

But the disparate nature of the anti-globalisation group and its lack of leadership has continued to prove a hindrance to efforts to formulate a coherent, and positive, mission statement.

The problem stems in part from the fact that the movement continues to encompass so many different groups - from those looking out for turtles to those seeking to stop the dismantling of the welfare state - and that these various strands often have conflicting ideas on what line to take against globalisation and free trade.

Key groups in Cancun
Friends of the Earth
Continental Social Alliance
Focus on the Global South
Some groups have dropped the "anti" banner in favour of a warmer "global justice" tag, urging not an end to free trade but "fairer" trade, to the benefit of poor countries.

"We have to act globally - not to overthrow globalisation - but to capture it for humanity's first democratic revolution," declared George Monbiot, one of the most articulate British members of anti-globalisation movement and one who has changed his mind about the need to eliminate the WTO, at a recent talk in London to promote his new book.

"I ask just one thing of you," he told his audience. "That you do not reject these proposals until you have better ones with which to replace them."

Because while anti-globalisation activists may stand united behind the slogan "Other Worlds Are Possible", supporters as well as critics have started to demand a more definitive blueprint of utopia.

Keen to counter charges of vacuousness, some groups are starting to dissociate themselves from their stone-throwing days.

At a recent mass rally in Larzac, France, participants attended technical discussions about the problems of the market, property rights and public goods.

In Cancun, workshops and "teach-ins" will also be a key feature. For just $850, one can for example take part in the Organic Consumer Association's week of seminars. "Comfortable" accommodation is included in the bill, but not flights.

What is OUR goal? What is OUR mission statement? Who - and how do we determine who - has the authority to speak for US?
"Education and the search for solutions has moved to the fore. We have started to really examine the problems with the way the system works - particularly with issues like agriculture - and starting to formulate alternatives," says Thomas Fritz of the German branch of Attac, a group that wants to overthrow or reform the WTO.

"And more and more we are taken seriously. The thing I am most proud of over the past few years is the fact that we have got these issues onto the agenda and that our voices are starting to be heard. We're moving into a new stage now."

Reciprocal relations?

It is widely agreed that the concerns raised by the movement are being heard and have indeed had an impact on governments, companies and world bodies.

"In the US for example, there has been more attention paid over the past few years to the plight of developing countries, and in part, that is as a result of pressure from the anti-globalisation movement," says Edward Gresser, a trade and global markets analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based think-tank close to the Democrats.

"However, this shift also has a lot to do with the fact that international politics dictates that the US must find new friends and allies in the world - that's really been a driving force."

Financial writer Benjamin Hunt, whose recent book The Timid Corporation controversially argues that capitalism is no longer ruthless enough, says image-conscious companies have certainly taken note of campaigners' grievances.

But he believes that an increasingly risk-averse business community has of its own accord become more concerned about the fallout of unregulated capitalism in the past decade.

"Politicians and business people have adopted the language of environmentalism and sustainable development because it corresponds with their own growing insecurity about the future.

"Nobody is that sure about capitalism anymore, half the world still lives in great poverty - which isn't good for business - and the confidence that used to exist in the system has evaporated."

What next

Cancun promises to draw anti-globalisation activists from around the world.

But while the movement likes to style itself as one of global proportions, its success in attracting adherents to date has appeared to depend very much on domestic political conditions.

In the US, analysts point out, there has been little room for a movement which can often be anti-establishment in the post-11 September era.

In France, where the movement is increasingly seen as a possible alternative to the troubled left-wing, as many as 200,000 people gathered in August for a pre-Cancun rally.

"This movement has much potential in terms of attracting people - those scared of the effects of scientific and technological developments, those who don't feel represented by the current political set-up," says sociology professor Frank Furedi, who observed the Larzac festival from a distance.

"But I can't see it ever becoming a credible political force. It should be seen as a cultural phenomenon that gives people a sense of belonging, no more, no less."

Such remarks infuriate those many campaigners who are dedicated to their cause.

"We know what we want," says Guy Taylor, a spokesman for Globalise Resistance, a British anti-capitalist group with 500 members.

"We many not have one goal, one mission, and we may be a hotchpotch of people because we are a movement, not a party. And we are having an intense debate about what the future of the world should look like."

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