Everyone knows what the anti-globalization movement is against – neo-liberal economics, western government policies, the Washington multilateral institutions and unfettered corporate power. Less clear is what the movement stands for. By Sudip Roy –

Nearly 40,000 people descended on the Renaissance Italian city of Florence in mid-November. It had nothing to do with Bellini, Botticelli or the hundreds of other artists whose paintings hang in the city’s most famous tourist attraction, the Uffizi Gallery. Instead, these people – activists, economists, humanitarians, intellectuals and radicals – were in Florence for a different kind of vision: to imagine and construct a new future for Europe.

Under the aegis of the European Social Forum, they were out to show that a more caring and sharing Europe is possible. The forum – which lasted four days, held 400 meetings and drew participants from more than 80 countries – attempted to outline a genuinely new vision for Europe.

Broadly speaking, the forum’s message was this: the free-market ideas that are propagated by the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and also adopted by many European governments, should be dropped. Instead of pursuing the path of neo-liberalism (which benefits the few), European governments should follow the road of social democracy (which helps the many).

There is nothing new in that. Numerous protest groups have expressed aims such as these for many years. But the delegates in Florence went further and outlined specifics.

Speakers at the forum said Europe should have open borders. It should be demilitarized and at peace with itself and the outside world. It should have a Tobin tax on cross-border currency exchange transactions. Financial markets and corporations should be regulated. There should be no genetically modified (GM) foods or pollution. There should be no privatization of public services. And racism should be driven out.

These aims and their specific nature reflect the changes that the protest groups are undertaking. Concerned about being seen as negative and unfocused, these groups are evolving in terms of tactics and composition. They are becoming more flexible.

Where demonstrations once dominated, the emphasis now is on debate and the dissemination of ideas (although the protest groups still see demonstrations as an important and useful tactic if the circumstances seem appropriate).

Where these groups once appeared to be composed mostly of white, middle-class students, today they include people from all sectors of society and all parts of the world – including representatives of the poorer countries.

Where the protest groups were once best known for what they opposed, they are now putting forward practical alternatives to the neo-liberal ideas that predominate in the corridors of western governments and institutions.

A lot of these practical alternatives have yet to be fully thought through. There is no “one model fits all” vision, no hard-and-fast ideology, such as socialism or liberalism or anti-globalization, linking them together.

Many of these groups even say the term “anti-globalization”, which has been applied to them, is wrong. In their eyes they are not opposed to the idea of global integration as such, rather the form it takes at the moment. The key now is to present their ideas in a clear and coherent way.

“The real challenge [for the protest groups] is to coalesce around some very clear demands,” says Caroline Lucas, a member of the European Parliament for the Green Party. “[People must explain] what the movement is for, not just against. The movement realizes that. It doesn’t lack ideas. What’s important is to hone them down, prioritize them and build momentum for them.”

Adam Lent, the editor of Fabian Global Forum – a website for social democrats and their sympathizers – agrees. He says the movement underwent a change following the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001.

“As a result of September 11, there’s a lot more focus on what the movement is campaigning for and what it is campaigning against,” Lent says. “It has created a more thoughtful and realistic movement.”

That has meant less time organizing large-scale, set-piece demonstrations and more time thinking. “Following Seattle [where a WTO meeting in 1999 was marred by violent clashes between demonstrators and police] the radical wing had become the public face of the movement,” Lent says. “Now the more moderate campaigners – the NGOs, trade unions, church groups and so on – are coming back to the fore. Now there is a greater sense of a real campaign.”

But the questions still remain. What exactly is the movement? What ideas is it propagating? What tactics is it using? Will they succeed?

To activists, the movement is not a conventional one. “You can’t compare the movement to a government or an organization,” says Justin Forsyth, head of policy at Oxfam. “The movement is multifaceted and complicated.”

If anything, Forsyth explains, it is a coalition of a number of groups that unite around some common concerns. “These groups are all working on different elements [trade, debt, GM crops and so on] which add up to an unease about globalization,” he says. “Sometimes these elements come together as at Genoa [where a G7 summit meeting was held in 2001] and at Prague [where the annual IMF/World Bank meetings were held in 2000].”

Hundreds of groups come under the movement’s umbrella. They include NGOs such as Oxfam, the Trade Justice Movement and Drop the Debt; religious organizations such as Christian Aid; radicals such as Global Resistance; environmentalists such as Friends of the Earth; groups based in poor countries such as Third World Network; and individual activists and celebrities such as the author Naomi Klein.

Each has a special interest, a specific cause. Each is united in the belief that, as Forsyth puts it, “There’s something wrong with the status quo.”

According to the environmentalist and columnist George Monbiot, this unease was vaguely defined when the movement first started – with people unable to articulate exactly what was wrong.

“They had a sense that power was being removed from their hands,” Monbiot says. “Then gradually they became more informed, often in very specific areas, because what you find in your community of activism is some people who are very concerned about farming, those who are very interested in the environment, or labour standards, or privatization or public services or Third World debt. These interests tie together and the place where they all meet is this issue of corporate power.”

For “corporate power” read “the market”. If there is one issue that binds all these groups together it is their dislike of market ideology and the belief that neo-liberal policies are the only solutions to the world’s economic problems.

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, says: “Different groups are citing the same reason for their problems. People are realizing that the notion that the market generates growth only works in a narrow sense. For example, it helps improve returns for stockholders. But the market hasn’t worked in developing a more equal world. In fact the world is now more divided than ever.”

The statistics paint a mixed picture. The number of people who exist on less than $1 a day – 1.3 billion – has not changed much since 1950. As a proportion of the world’s population, it has actually fallen sharply. But the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% of the world’s population has doubled over the past 40 years. Just under half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Even market supporters agree that their opponents’ analysis has some validity. “It’s proving to be partly correct,” says Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex in the UK. “For those of us who believe in markets, we’re going to look back on the last decade or so with some embarrassment about the hubris we expressed. All the protesters who were way over in deep left field were in a sense pointing in the right direction, while the policy-makers weren’t.”

So how would the protest groups correct these excesses of inequality? Juniper talks of developing a “third way”. By this he means governments promoting economic ideas and policies that “promote social justice as well as profit”. Justice is a key theme for the protesters. If the movement must have a catch-all name, most activists prefer “global justice movement” to “anti-globalization movement”.

Lent explains: “The aim is about creating a genuinely democratic vision for governance. There have to be financial changes brought about. Structures need to be set up to create equality and encourage the redistribution of wealth.”

One idea that Juniper at Friends of the Earth is promoting is an ecology tax. Revenues would be raised from taxes on pollution and could then be spent on such areas as transport, helping to generate jobs at the same time. Juniper calls it “a genuinely new idea”.

But it would need more than just a set of new taxes to redefine the world order in the way these groups want. Global justice means reviewing the rules for world trade, the mechanisms of debt relief, the validity of privatization. These are the three most burning issues facing the protest movement today.

As Lent and Juniper explain, they are not opposed to the idea of trade, rather the system under which trade is presently conducted. “Free trade is a good way of creating wealth,” Lent says, “but unregulated trade creates massive inequalities in wealth.”

He adds: “There are always debates about how strong regulation should be and how it should be applied. Free trade, as it is applied at the moment, is not free. It just allows northern companies to gain access to southern markets.” Juniper takes a similar line. “We’re not anti-trade,” he says, “but we need to look at what the WTO is doing.”

The 2001 Doha round of WTO talks, at which the US and EU insisted that poor countries immediately reduce industrial tariffs, comes in for special criticism. Lucas wrote in the UK Sunday newspaper the Observer at the time: “Doha spells disaster for poor people.”

She suggested an alternative model, involving “a gradual transition away from dependence on international export markets (with every country trying to compete with each other, leading to a downward spiral of social and environmental standards) towards the provision of as many goods and services as feasible and appropriate locally and nationally”.

She went on to say that “developing countries would be given significant support to help them with this transition”.

Under Lucas’s plan – and in opposition to WTO rules – domestic products would be given priority where “their production increases local employment with decent wages. Over time, quantitative controls on exports or imports through tariffs, quotas or bans would be permitted to this end.” Lucas would also encourage protective barriers to support poor countries’ farmers in their efforts to “reach maximum self-sufficiency in food”. Again, this would be contrary to WTO rules.

“Such policies have been branded as ‘protectionist’ – but we would be willing to accept such a label, if it is to be understood that what we want to protect are efficient national policies of cost internalization, health and safety standards, and a reasonable minimum standard of living for citizens, both north and south,” Lucas concluded.

Such proposals would no doubt appal many western multinational companies. But the protesters are insistent: poor countries should follow whichever path best suits them.

“Countries should be able to further their own paths of development, even if they act against foreign multinationals, as long as it’s good for the country,” says Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement, a group which campaigns on trade, debt and corporate responsibility issues. “There are many alternatives to liberalization. Each country will come up with different forms of mixed economies if they are left to their own devices.”

Right now, trade is the topic that gains much of the headlines. But there are other issues which deserve just as much attention. The campaign for debt relief, for example, has faded from the spotlight since the turn of the millennium. But the issue remains as important as ever. Despite numerous debt relief initiatives by the World Bank and the IMF, debt remains the biggest burden preventing poor countries from generating consistent economic growth.

Much of the debate between the liberals and the protesters has centred on the question of whether debt relief is actually useful for poor countries. Those in favour argue that the money saved from debt relief can be used for public spending.

The World Bank estimates that 40% of the revenue saved from debt relief is spent on education, with another 25% on health. Critics suggest that debt relief brings few benefits and does not even necessarily lead to a reduction in debt, as poor countries borrow anew until they become highly indebted again.

A paper by Todd Landman of the University of Essex in the UK has put a different spin on the debate. Landman writes about an innovative model linking debt cancellation to education. It was first put forward by Cristovam Buarque, a former state governor in Brazil who is now president of a children’s rights NGO in Brasilia.

The plan is simple. Worldwide more than 250 million children fail to attend school because they are sent out to work by their parents instead. Their failure to study, though, only serves to maintain poverty. Buarque suggests that if they ensured that their children attended school, these families could be compensated by the amount of income that the children would have earned each month.

Buarque estimates that the cost for one year of getting 4 million children back to school is equivalent to just over 1% of Brazil’s 1998 debt servicing repayments. Extending the programme for 10 million children between the ages of six and 10 would cost just over 3% of debt servicing payments.

“A similar reduction in debt servicing across the developing world could convert a 3-4% decrease into a large increase in education for young people,” Landman concludes.

Another bone of contention is the west’s belief that private companies provide the best, most efficient, most affordable and most competitive services. “Privatization is portrayed as completely ideological,” says Juniper. “Our view is that it might work or it might not. It needs checks and balances. It depends on where you’re doing it, when you’re doing it and how you’re doing it.”

One place where privatization has failed is Malawi. In a report published in November, the World Development Movement criticized the market reforms imposed on Malawi by the World Bank and the IMF, saying that they had failed to avert the worst famine in the country since 1949. The report singled out privatization of the country’s Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation for special criticism.

The authors of the report agree that the corporation needed to be reformed. But they argue that “rather than ensuring that social aims are achieved through accountable government, the IMF and the World Bank and other donors have pursued an agenda of austerity, deregulation and privatization”.

They go on: “Not only have the outcomes been disastrous but also the agenda of good governance and accountability has been abused by donors.”

The report suggests that if Malawi were allowed to cancel its $70 million annual debt servicing payments, it could use the money “to develop the country to be self-reliant in food”.

Ideas and critiques of this sort help to re-energize the protest groups and furnish them with credibility. But is anyone in power actually listening? Well, to an extent they are.

“The movement has been quite important in defining some of the agenda and certainly in defining the attitudes of policy-makers,” says Winters at Sussex University. “I don’t think we’re going to see anything like the sort of gung-ho liberalization of the 1990s over the next 10 years.”

Liberals will argue that western governments have realized the need to be more caring. President George W Bush has proposed a $5 billion increase in the amount the US gives to the world’s poor. At the same time multilateral organizations such as the UN, with full support from all its members, are committed to halving poverty by 2015. This pledge was contained in the General Assembly’s Millennium Declaration adopted in September 2000.

Forsyth says that while every little helps, these gestures fail to go far enough. “There is still a big gap between rhetoric and policy,” he says. “There needs to be an extra $100 billion a year if the Millennium Declaration’s goals are to be realized. At the moment, only $12 billion a year is being committed.”

The problem is that the protest groups and western institutions only cross paths in a limited way. Yes, the Bush administration is committed to increasing US aid (although not necessarily for philanthropic reasons). Yes, the UK government – led by its finance minister, Gordon Brown – is committed to debt relief. And yes, the IMF is committed to helping poor countries resolve their economic crises (although it can sometimes make things worse, not better).

But none of them is interested in redefining the world order in the way these protest groups want. Trade practices will remain unfair because, when push comes to shove, western governments will protect their industries if need be, while urging southern countries to open up their markets. The IMF will continue to propose liberalization because it thinks that will help promote economic growth, even when such policies appear to be failing.

The protest groups, meanwhile, have to continue banging their drums, organizing the marginalized, articulating their vision.

The task is difficult but, as Florence proved, it is not impossible.