No. 35, September 2003
NO. 35 (Sept. 2003):
The World Social Forum
and the Struggle against 'Globalisation'
Buoyed by the success of the Porto Alegre meets, the WSF organisers have been trying systematically to expand the Forum's influence even further. In the course of the last year they have organised an Argentina Social Forum meet in Buenos Aires, a European Social Forum in Florence, a Palestine Thematic Forum in Ramallah (on "negotiated solutions for conflicts"), an Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, and an African Social Forum in Addis Ababa. It is as part of this "internationalisation" process that the WSF bodies (the Brazilian Organising Committee and the International Council) decided to hold the next WSF gathering not in Brazil, but in India.
The holding of the "Asian Social Forum" at Hyderabad on January 2-7, 2003, confirmed that such an event could be successfully held in India. Large funds were mobilised from foreign funding agencies for this event too, including from Ford Foundation, which is, as we have seen, one of the major funders of the WSF.
Just as in Brazil the WSF was initiated by ATTAC and PT, in India the WSF meet is being organised by an alliance of non-governmental organisations and leading cadre from certain political parties — in the main, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, along with their mass organisations of workers, students, peasants, and women. Certain mass organisations with close ties to NGOs are also involved. While these are the forces taking the initiative to organise the meet, and which are able to provide the full-time manpower to do so, a large number of other forces and individuals are likely to join the proceedings in one way or another, either as organisers of discussions or simply as participants.
Large requirement of funds
As for the first, the "Part Funding Policy" as adopted by the India General Council of the WSF at its April 7-8 2003 meeting at BTR Bhawan in Delhi, "Maximum international funds [are] to be raised and managed by IC/BOC (International Council/Brazilian Organising Council) as per their policy". No principle is laid down here for what type of sources may be tapped, just as the WSF Charter is silent on this score. Apart from this, the Part Funding Policy says that "NRI's [and] organisations other than funding organisations and individuals may be approached for contribution to solidarity fund." The document "Project World Social Forum 2004" (World Social Forum Secretariat -- Brazilian Organising Committee and Indian Organising Committee) estimates that $2.5 million will have to be raised.
However, as mentioned above, this does not capture the full role of funding agencies. In fact "Project World Social Forum 2004" estimates total expenditure for the event at $29.7 million (about Rs 135 crore), the bulk of which, $26.2 million, is the cost of the delegates' participation (transportation, accommodation and food). Funding agencies would bear much of this cost, since an army of NGO functionaries and employees would be attending — nearly all of the country's foreign-funded NGOs would be present, as well as many from abroad. The visits of many important personages too would be sponsored by NGOs. However, these sums would be disbursed directly to delegates without entering the WSF Secretariat accounts. The amount provided by foundations/funding agencies directly to the WSF Secretariat is a small fraction of such funds actually involved in the WSF meet (see Appendix II for some examples of this).
The NGO sector in India
There are a number of sincere individuals working in NGOs or associated with NGOs. Many such persons are moved by a desire to reach some immediate assistance to needy people. Seen in specific contexts, they do in fact reach some relief to sections of people. Without questioning the commitment and genuineness of such individuals, our concern here is to point to the broader political significance of the NGO institutional phenomenon.
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of foreign-funded NGOs in India: according to the Home Ministry, by the year 2000 nearly 20,000 organisations were registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, though only 13,800 of them submitted their accounts to the government as required.1 Total foreign funds received by these organisations rose from Rs 3,403 crore in 1998-99 to Rs 3,925 crore in 1999-2000 to Rs 4,535 crore (about $993 million) in 2000-01.2
Not a spontaneous social phenomenon
Why do multinational corporations, the imperialist governments, and institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations channel such funds to NGOs?
Indeed the extraordinary proliferation of NGOs serves imperialism in a variety of ways.
1. NGOs, especially those working to provide various services — health, education, nutrition, rural development — act as a buffer between the State and people. Many States find it useful to maintain the trappings of democracy even as they slash people's most basic survival requirements from their budgets. NGOs come to the rescue by acting as the private contractors of the State, with the benefit that the State is absolved of all responsibilities. People cannot demand anything as a right from the NGOs: what they get from them is 'charity'.
Till the 1980s, NGO activity in India was limited to 'developmental' activities -- rural uplift, literacy, nutrition for women and children, small loans for self-employment, public health, and so on. This continues to be a major sphere of NGO activity — in 2000-01, Rs 970 crore, or 21 per cent of the total foreign funds, was designated for rural development, health and family welfare; other 'developmental' heads would have added to this figure.
But in what context are these 'developmental' activities taking place? In the basic context of enormous, conscious suppression of development. Under the guidance of the IMF and World Bank, successive Indian governments slashed their expenditure on rural development (including expenditure on agriculture, rural development, special areas programme, irrigation and flood control, village industry, energy and transport; the figures are for Centre and states combined) from 14.5 per cent of GDP in 1985-90 to 5.9 per cent in 2000-01.5 Rural employment growth is now flat; per capita foodgrains consumption has fallen dramatically to levels lower than the 1939-44 famine; the situation is calamitous. Were expenditure by Centre and states on rural development to have remained at the same percentage of GDP as in 1985-90, it would not have been Rs 124,000 crore in 2000-01, but Rs 305,000 crore, or more than two and a half times the actual amount.
In comparison with this giant spending gap, the sums being spent by NGOs in India are trivial. But, by their presence, the notion is conveyed all round that private organisations are stepping in to fill the gap left by the State. This is doubly useful to the rulers. The political propaganda of 'privatisation' is bolstered; and, as said before, people are unable to demand anything as their right. In effect, NGO activities help the State to whittle down even the existing meagre social claims that people have on the social product.
Thus NGOs are multiplied fastest where State policies — usually as part of an IMF/World Bank-directed policy — are withdrawing basic services such as food, health care, and education. The greater the devastation wreaked by the policy, the greater the proliferation of NGOs sponsored to help the victims. (Indeed, before the US prepares to invade a country, it funds and prepares leading NGOs to provide 'relief' after it has rained destruction.6 Thus in the second half of 2002 NGOs began cutting their spending on, and manpower deployed in, still-devastated Afghanistan -- as part of their preparation to join the US caravan to Iraq.)
2. In the course of recruiting their manpower, the NGOs give employment and a small share of the cream to certain local persons. These persons might be locally influential persons, whose influence and operations then benefit the NGO. Or they might be vocal and restive persons, potential opponents of the authorities, who are in effect bought over. In either case, NGO employment, although tiny in comparison with the levels of unemployment in third world countries, serves as a network of local political influence, stabilising the existing order.
3. In the field of people's movements, 'activist' or 'advocacy' NGOs help to redirect struggles of the people for basic change from the path of confrontation to that of negotiation, preserving the existing political frame. The World Bank explains in its "Report on Development" (cited above) its political reasons for promoting NGOs. It says: "Social tensions and divisions can be eased by bringing political opponents together within the framework of formal and informal forums and by channeling their energies through political processes, rather than leaving confrontation as the only form of release."7 Thus ever since the early seventies Andhra Pradesh, a state with a strong tradition of revolutionary movements, has witnessed a massive proliferation of NGOs, and is indeed among the states receiving the maximum foreign NGO funds today.
NGOs bureaucratise people's movements. Traditionally, people's movements are self-reliant: they have to raise their own resources, and are led by representatives from among the people. These representatives, to one extent or another, thus have to be accountable to the people. By contrast, NGO-led movements, while claiming to represent the people, are led by officers of the NGOs, who are paid by funding agencies to carry on activity. Naturally, they are not accountable to the people, nor can they be removed by them; so they are also free to act without regard for people's opinions. On the other hand, NGOs are accountable to their funders, and cannot afford to stray beyond certain bounds. Minus foreign and government funding, the entire NGO sector in India would collapse in a day.
Indeed, as NGOs proliferate and spread their wings, setting up funded adivasi organisations, dalit organisations, women's organisations, 'human rights' organisations, cultural organisations, and organisations of unorganised labour, it is often NGOs that are the first to respond to any political or social issue — including 'globalisation' and its harmful effects. Political life itself is increasingly NGOised, that is, bureaucratised and alienated from popular presence and representation.
The ideological underpinnings, such as they are, of this trend are provided by what has come to be known as 'post-modernism.' This is an international intellectual current — now powerful, if not dominant, in social science academic institutions worldwide. Not its own strength as a school of thought, but the rich stream of funds and academic positions flowing to it, has ensured post-modernists institutional dominance — an echo of what Ford Foundation did in the 1950s.
Although 'post-modernism' is not really systematic thought, and so is difficult to pin down and refute, the following is an important strand of it, and the one that is relevant for the topic we are discussing here. This strand argues against any worldview which attempts (however approximately or tentatively) to comprehend all of reality in an integrated fashion. The post-modernists argue that such a worldview imposes its project on other realities. Instead, this strand posits that there are any number of realities, equally valid, and that the very tools of analysis for these realities differ.
Class analysis and post-modernism produce sharply contrasting analyses of social phenomena, which have sharply differing implications for the practice of social movements. Class analysis argues that, for example, the vast majority of women have an objective, material basis to join their movement with those of other sections (including dalits, adivasis, workers, and so on) in a struggle against the existing social order; that women's liberation is tied up with (though a distinct sphere of) such a broader struggle; that male chauvinist attitudes of, say, male workers are against all workers' own long-term interest; and that such attitudes have to be fought by making ruling class influences the target, not ordinary workers as such.
Post-modernism, however, considers such a view "reductionist" (the term used in the World Social Forum Charter). Rather, post-modernism places all struggles on par, with class as just another social category jostling with gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so on for attention. Post-modernism thus rules out the possibility of united action by various social sections on the basis of common objective interests; rather, it talks of varying coalitions/alliances of forces, joining hands to one extent or another for specific aims.
The post-modernist approach implies that members of the same coalition might be pitted against each other in some other respect — for example, male workers and women might join hands in a particular cause, but remain antagonists on gender issues. This in turn implies that no clear line can be drawn between the "camp of the people" and the camp of those who are responsible for exploitation and oppression of people. Both camps are open to all.
When male workers, who (in post-modernist
eyes) are the target of struggle by women, can be part of the World Social
Forum in which women's organisations
too participate, nothing need prevent industrialists from joining the
Forum along with workers. Nothing, for that matter, prevents a UN delegation
attending the Forum, or a prominent member of the Forum dashing off to
attend the World Economic Forum as well. All of them — the workers
and the capitalists, the protester and the World Bank functionary — are
part of what the post-modernists call 'civil society'. (Thus the April
2002 Bhopal declaration of WSF India clarifies that the WSF "must
make space" not only "for workers, peasants, indigenous peoples,
dalits, women, hawkers, minorities, immigrants, students, academicians,
artisans, artists and other members of the creative world, professionals",
but also for "the media, and for local businessmen and industrialists,
as well as for parliamentarians, sympathetic bureaucrats and other
concerned sections from within and outside the state". — emphasis added.
The word "state" is used here in the sense of the organ of
established political authority.)
Post-modernism rejects such an approach. Edward Herrman describes it succinctly as follows:
Emerging as a political 'alternative'
If the bar on political parties were in order to allow mass organisations and mass movements to occupy centre stage, one could understand the rationale. In fact it is to the contrary. Political parties actually do take part in the WSF, appearing as 'individuals' — as can be seen by the leading role of PT in the Brazil WSF meets, and the droves of parliamentarians who attended those gatherings. The point here is the ideological concept that post-modernists/NGO theorists strain hard to propagate: Namely, that any single political force aiming to represent all sections of the people amounts to an imposition on the tapestry of different groups or ways of being.
Indeed, for those who run the existing order, it is vital to ensure the absence of any coherent political force which can integrate the myriad sections in opposition against that order.
While NGOs thus oppose the concept of a single political party leading various sections of the people, they themselves are emerging as a single political force in their own right. They have unanimity on most issues. Their explicitly political activities span a wide range of social sections: they run organisations of women, adivasis, dalits, unorganised workers, fishermen, and slumdwellers; they also run organisations for the protection of the environment, cultural organisations, and human rights organisations (indeed, much admirable work in providing relief to the victims of the Gujarat massacres, and documentation of the crimes there, has been done by NGOs).
Till now, however, NGOs by and large have not been treated as a legitimate political force by the traditional mass organisations — the trade unions, peasant unions, student organisations, women's organisations. And it continues to be the case that the mass organisations command much greater capacity to mobilise masses of people. Through platforms such as the World Social Forum now, NGOs are being provided an opportunity to legitimise themselves as a political force and expand their influence among sections to which they earlier had little access.
CPI(M)'s earlier stand
Karat stated his thesis in brief as follows:
Karat argued that the new seemingly 'activist' stance adopted by the NGOs was a sophisticated imperialist strategy: "...along with the funding for the second phase [ie of `activism' by NGOs] came the ideological package also. For how else can one explain the strange spectacle of imperialist agencies and governments funding organisations to organise the rural and urban poor to fight for their rights and against exploitation?" (p. 8)
In the course of the critique Karat mentioned several of the same foundations which have been funding the World Social Forum and affiliated activities — ICCO-Netherlands; Friedrich Ebert Foundation; NOVIB; Ford Foundation; Canadian International Development Agency; and Oxfam. "It would be no exaggeration to say that the whole voluntary agencies/action groups network is maintained and nurtured by funds from western capitalist countries. The scale of funding and the vast amounts involved are so striking that it is surprising that this has not become a matter of urgent public debate in this country.... This open access to foreign funds allowed by the Government of India has become one of the major sources of imperialist penetration financially in the country." (p. 34)
He ended with a call for political struggle:
Indeed, he proudly states that "it is well known that it is the CPI(M) cadres and activists who have been in the lead all over the country in exposing the designs of foreign-funded voluntary work as they are clear about its implications". (p. 60)
Isaac went on to blur the distinction between the Seattle-stream of protests and the World Social Forum:
In fact, quite to the contrary: the WSF is intended, among other things, precisely to co-opt the "new organisational forms of struggle" that arose around the Seattle protests. This is what we have tried to show at some length above.
CPI(M) — an opponent of globalisation?
The new chief minister of West Bengal, back from his recent trip to Italy to solicit investment from Gucci and other Italian firms, is now busy conferring with multinationals and Indian corporates to participate in his planned Kolkata global festival "to change the perception of the city in the eyes of outsiders". Speaking to industrialists in Mumbai, he rushed to clarify, first, that the CPI(M) has not called for a boycott of American goods in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, and that his government wanted not only Indian private companies but also foreign firms to invest in his state; and secondly, that labour militancy in Bengal was no longer a problem — indeed there "strikes and labour problems are much less than Maharashtra". The CPI(M)-affiliated trade union centre, CITU, he assured them, "is aware that there would be no jobs if there are no industries."10 The West Bengal government has issued advertisements for the privatisation of nine state public sector units: the pompous term used is "joint venture transformation through induction of strategic partners", involving "transfer of equity stake ranging from 51 per cent to 74 per cent with management control"; the government is "open to considering the requisite extent of manpower restructuring and waiver of outstanding financial liabilities as may be necessary for ensuring their sustainable viability". The financial adviser to the privatisation is the multinational Pricewaterhouse Coopers.11
On the West Bengal chief minister's table lies the report of the American consultancy firm, McKinsey (which his government commissioned in October 2001) on the prospects of agriculture-based industries and information technology-based industries in the state. McKinsey proposes that 41 per cent of the state's arable land should be diverted from rice to vegetable and fruit cash crops; large agro-based corporations should be attracted to the state; laws should be altered to allow contract farming; and by the end of the decade the state should aim its agro-based products at the international market. "This initiative is aimed at attracting national and multinational investors to the state. McKinsey has already established contacts with several such investors. We have received a good response from them. Now our plans and efforts should be commensurate with their requirements and demands."12
World Social Forum — instrument of struggle?
The advocates of the WSF say it has given an impetus to struggle. This is not so. As we have tried to show, the vibrant protest movement gave an impetus to struggle. The people's movements and upsurges of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador gave an impetus to struggle. The World Social Forum has simply given an impetus to the next World Social Forum, and the next.
The WSF's real relation to anti-imperialist struggle is starkly revealed by its organisers' conduct at the Asian Social Forum meet in Hyderabad in January 2003. Hyderabad is the capital of Andhra Pradesh, which, apart from being one of the top recipients of NGO funds in India, is also marked by two other features.
First, the state government is perhaps the most active 'globaliser' in the country. In 1998, the state government directly negotiated a $500 million World Bank loan, which came tied with the Andhra Pradesh Economic Restructuring Programme (APERP). The APERP dictated the dismantling of the state electricity board, the inviting of private investment in power, and increasing electricity tariffs. It also dictated the hiking of water cesses for peasants; college fees; bus fares; and public hospital charges. It ordered all-round privatisation. The state government has been implementing this programme, undeterred by the massive suffering caused, the waves of starvation deaths, the thousands of suicides of peasants unable to repay their debts. When people's organisations protested the electricity tariff hike, the Hyderabad police responded by massacring the protesters.
Indeed, the second feature, a necessary accompaniment to the first, is that state terror in Andhra Pradesh is at its zenith. The A.P. police is given fat financial rewards for routinely and cold-bloodedly murdering hundreds of the government's political opponents in fake 'encounters'. The targets have not been restricted to the members of revolutionary groups, but have been systematically extended to all those who do not submit to the reign of terror; a special target has been civil liberties activists.
The Asian Social Forum gathering at Hyderabad, with its myriad panel discussions, press meets, and public procession, did not speak a word about this armed 'globalisation' being carried out by Chandrababu Naidu. Evidently the organisers had negotiated terms with the government. In fact, at the same time as the ASF meet, Naidu and the deputy prime minister of India (the chief architect of the demolition of the Babri Masjid) L.K. Advani, were holding an investment conference in Hyderabad itself. Some dalit groups organised a protest against Naidu's event, but the ASF, with its tens of thousands of participants at hand in the same city, maintained a studied silence.13
The contrast with the Seattle demonstrations could hardly be sharper. The real political role of the WSF could hardly be clearer.
2. Economic Times, 4/9/03. (back)
4. ibid. (back)
5. Prabhat Patnaik, "Agrarian Crisis and Distress in Rural India", People's Democracy, 12/5/03. (back)
6. See "Raid then aid" and "The compassion con", Nick Cater, Guardian 24/1/03 and 28/2/03. (back)
7. Thuillier, ibid. (back)
8.Edward S. Herman, “Postmodernism Triumphs,” Z Magazine, January 1996, zena.secureforum.com/Znet/ZMag/articles/jan96herman.htm. (back)
9. 15/8/03. (back)
10. Times of India, 3/6/03 (back)
11. Economic Times, 3/9/03. (back)
12. translated from Ganashakti, 23/10/02; cited in New Democracy, November 2002. (back)
13. Liberation, February 2003. (back)
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