Walden Bello is one of the leading critics of the current model of economic globalization, combining the roles of intellectual and activist. As a human rights and peace campaigner, academic, environmentalist, and journalist, he has made a major contribution to the international case against corporate-driven globalization. In 1995, he co-founded the Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based research and advocacy organization, of which he is now executive director. Bello is the author or editor of 12 books, including the recently-released Deglobalization: Ideas for a New World Economy. The Belgian newspaper Le Soir recently called Bello “the most respected anti-globalization thinker in Asia.”
Francis Calpotura caught up with Walden Bello at his office at the University of the Philippines where he is a professor of sociology and public administration.
How did you first become involved in the World Social Forum?
We are one of the founding groups of the World Social Forum. When the first WSF idea was proposed in 2000, Focus on the Global South was asked to join the process, and we jumped on it. We felt the idea of bringing together a counter to Davos was very important. We had a very different view of where the world should be going. We were for liberation, they were for control.
Some see the World Social Forum as part of a series of historical initiatives by countries from the Global South that puts forward an alternative to existing economic and political arrangements, much like the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1950s and liberation movements of the past 50 years. Is this an accurate description of WSF’s roots and inspiration?
Yes, I think that the idea of having a site where people who represent a wide variety of movements that have been alienated by capitalist-driven globalization could meet and share ideas, affirm themselves, express solidarity and feel that they are part of a global movement. The solidarity aspect of the WSF is very important.
The resistance aspect is important as well. At the WSF, you have movements who are concretely fighting the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO—the WSF becomes the site where the planning for the next moves in the campaign against the WTO, the IMF, and the U.S. war effort takes place.
Finally, the alternatives—the thinking and the sharing of ideas—about how we structure economies and states differently at the local, national, and international levels blossom at the WSF. This exchange is critical in advancing our collective vision for a new global economic order.
Ideally, there will be a meeting of the minds about a vision of what an alternative economic system looks like. But, of course, this rarely happens. Are there tensions between civil societies from the global South and those from the North about strategies to employ or visions to uphold?
Yes, of course. At the start, there were tensions between Northern-based civil society groups and Southern groups. Many Southern groups initially felt that some of the groups in Europe was driving the agenda too much. There was a sense among many that the European and Latin American presence in the WSF was too strong and the presence of groups from Asia and Africa was quite weak. So people said, “How can we talk about the World Social Forum when you had very few people coming from Asian and African nations?”
There were also tensions between NGOs, social movements, and political parties—the NGOs and social movements come from different political and organizing traditions from political parties, many of whom come from more socialist, communist, or Marxist perspectives of organizing. People were wary that political parties had too prominent a role in the WSF. But folks also felt very comfortable that a new type of political party was central to the WSF, which is the Worker’s Party of Brazil. Well, there is a sense anyway that the Worker’s Party of Brazil is a marriage between a political party and social movements.
Then there’s the tension on whether the World Social Forum should take positions on key political issues. I personally think that the World Social Forum, or the International Council within it, should take a position on the war, and on the WTO. But in the debates that happened there were many who felt that this is not an appropriate role for the Forum; it should provide a venue for progressive interaction rather than take political positions. My view is that’s a rather mechanistic way of thinking. Taking position on some issues and providing a venue for exchange of ideas is not contradictory.
9/11 came at a time when the WSF was finding its step in the global justice arena. What impact has the War on Terrorism had on the development of the WSF?
When the WSF first emerged, it was a forum that focused on both opposition and alternative to corporate-driven globalization. What 9/11 did, and since then the war on Iraq, is to make war and peace issues central. WSF became one of the sites where the movements against corporate globalization and the peace movements were welded together.
The WSF framework became a very important instrument for mobilization against Bush’s war, and against the Bush approach on the war against terror, and against the war in Iraq. If you had not had the WSF process moving, it would have taken much longer to galvanize a broader anti-war movement.
At this time, U.S. unilateralism is showing major strains that can be exploited. There is an overreach in terms of U.S. power and the desire for intervention will weaken; the United States will increasingly have less and less capacity to militarily throw its weight around. And its political influence is also waning—the crisis in Iraq, the emergence of anti-neoliberalism governments in Latin America, and an overextension of U.S. power worldwide. All of this creates a more fluid world, more space for southern governments and social movements to interact.
What inspiring alternatives are coming out of these discussions and what are the prospects of these taking root in the global arena?
The Focus on the Global South has put forward the idea of “deglobalization”—that what we should be striving for is a more pluralistic system of economic governance in which checks and balances operate among United Nations agencies, the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF (which should be radically scaled down), and regional organizations like Mercosur in Latin America and ASEAN in southeast Asia. We need to weaken the central institutions of globalization. Such a process of “deglobalization” will then create the space for nation-states to put together their alternative strategies for change.
There is no one model for development at this point—the sort of IMF or Marxist one-shoe-fits-all type of model belongs to the past. What we need to do is to create the space for different countries to elaborate their preferred strategies for development.
The other thing that gives me a lot of confidence is the Group of 21 led by Brazil. The emergence of the Worker’s Party of Brazil in the world stage shows how internal change can have a great impact on the external world. If we didn’t have Lula come to power in Brazil, we wouldn’t have the Group of 21 that plays a major role in stopping the U.S. agenda in Cancun early this year. And what Lula and others in the Group of 21 are now thinking is to expand its agenda to forge more extensive south-to-south technological and economic cooperation.
The United States is trying hard to split the Group of 21 because it knows that it is a threat to the U.S. and European Union domination of the world economy. If you get Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, and others beginning to coordinate policies, then you have a potentially strong nucleus for counter-hegemony in the global economy.