Regional Programs in the South and New Peoples' Initiatives in the Context of Contrary Internal Governmental Trends and External Interventions

01 November 2003

It has long been recognised by many governments and civil society organisations in the countries of the South that the regrouping of their countries into larger economic units is an important basis for effective and sustainable development. This has become increasingly evident with the ever-growing power and assertiveness of regional groupings created by the richest and most powerful countries in the world, namely the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) created by the US, and the ever-expanding European Union. And the political and economic regrouping and mutual strengthening of countries of the South has become a survival imperative in an increasingly competitive and hostile global environment.

There have been many 'regional' initiatives of varying size and effectiveness amongst countries of the South over the years, but many have faltered or failed. However, the strategic significance of this approach has not disappeared and there remain important possibilities, strengths - and lessons to be learned - from the experiences of the three largest and/or most significant such regions in the three geographical regions of the South. The following is a broad overview of the main features and some current initiatives within and in relation to three key 'regional' programs between countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is significant that there are both common tendencies as well as distinctive separate features evident in the current situations within, and in relation, to the three regional case studies.

Latin America - Mercosur

As pressure builds up from the United States towards the extension of its NAFTA region into a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA/ALCA), there are indications that the Brazilian government (with support from the Argentina?) is intending to direct more of its attentions to MERCOSUR with a view to strengthening and using this grouping as part of a counter-strategy in relation to the FTAA. There are also promising perspectives of a new radical government being elected in Uruguay, and new candidate countries in South America, such as Venezuela, applying to join MERCOSUR. On the other hand, there are various instabilities in the broader region, internal crises in some actual/potential (or associated) member countries, above all Argentina; and as-yet unresolved internal questions around the overwhelming economic preponderance of Brazil within the regional grouping.

These and other issues pose broad paradigmatic and specific policy and political challenges to both governmental and non-governmental actors throughout the region, and it is important that these issues be an integral part of the tactical and strategic debates within the regional movements, as also within the hemispheric social movement campaigns against the FTAA/ALCA; as seems to be the case. The main strategic challenges seem to be

  • whether and how strategies within MERCOSUR are to be used and even determined by the struggles against ALCA and neo-liberal globalisation more broadly; but also
  • how more detailed programs within the region can be used as important means and ends, in themselves, for more effective and equitable intra-regional cooperation and development; and as a model and potential support for the rest of Latin America and more broadly.

Africa - SADC

As pressures build up from Brussels for countries in Africa (and the Caribbean and Pacific) to enter into inter-regional 'reciprocal' free trade agreements with the EU, through the so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) under the EU-ACP Cotonou Agreement, the threats to the alternative regional integration and development programs and potential in SADC, and all such regional projects in Africa and elsewhere, are becoming more evident. Already the initial strategic unity of the ACP in confronting the EU, at least on the framework issues and negotiating modalities, is being undermined by certain regions in West and Central Africa (most notably ECOWAS) prematurely entering into their own separate negotiations with the EU - which Brussels energetically welcomes, and has undoubtedly been instrumental (with Paris?) in encouraging in the first place.

At the same time, the intensification of the competing strategies of the US are expressed, on the one hand, in its unilateral African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) which targets 'promising' individual African states and is having divisive effects on actual and potential inter-governmental regional cooperation programs. On the other hand, the US is also utilising bilateral FTAs with stronger economies in Africa, such as Morocco. And, in the case of South Africa, a bilateral agreement is under negotiation located (disguised) within its proposed inter-regional FTA with the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). This FTA will overlap with, complicate and counter the regional potential in SADC. This is already the case with the EU's FTA with South Africa, which is in itself , and explicitly, one of the motivations for the rival US-SA-SACU FTA initiative.

There are some perceptions that the putative African Union, aiming to promote SADC as with all the other African Regional Economic Communities (RECs), as the 'building blocks' towards a continental African Economic Community, could provide the base and bulwark to counter both the EU and US plans. Civil society responses point to the contradictory 'open regionalism' and global integration trajectory of the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD); promoted, above all, by South Africa, but endorsed by the AU.

In SADC, as such, there are also conflicting interests and policies between various political and economic interest groups in the respective member states, particularly between those in the regional 'super-power' South Africa and in the other countries. Various SADC countries are in the grip of serious internal economic, social and political crises. All these factors have to be, and are, part of the growing regional alliances and actions by civil society organisations and networks across Southern Africa and more broadly in/with civil society organisations in the rest of the continent . The main strategic challenges seem to be

  • how to strengthen and use the African Union as a base for united action on the international plane (as happened successfully in Cancún) while at the same time challenging the neo-liberal framework within which NEPAD (and its Northern supporters) are trying to confine the continent;
  • how to engage in influencing/changing the inter-governmental programs within the region while at the same time having to challenge and change most of the current governments, and build national and cross-border civil society alliances for both purposes.

Asia - ASEAN

Under long-standing counter-pressures from the US, Canada and other more developed members of APEC, and the reluctance of Japan to play a countervailing role, the much looser ASEAN regional grouping has failed to pursue its intra-regional economic cooperation potential. The financial crises of the later 1990s affecting various of the member states have reflected and reinforced tendencies towards separate national rather than joint regional strategies against the forces and effects of globalisation. Such divided and divisive approaches are now being deliberately strengthened by more concerted US strategies to secure bilateral FTAs with key targeted countries in the region, such as Thailand, which according to top US trade strategists will then be used to "dock in" other countries in the region, one by one.

On the other hand, new dynamics are opening up in the Asian region generally, and within ASEAN more specifically, with the proposals for a vast FTA between these countries and other East Asian countries, as well as the Asian giants China and India. This poses the possibility of a powerful Asian 'regional' economic response to the global dominance of the US and the EU; or, conversely, to the future dominance of Asia by India and/or China as the emerging regional super-powers. It is not yet clear how Japan is/going to respond to these emerging challenges to its own erstwhile economic dominance in Asia. But the US, EU, and other strong economic and political players on the fringes of the Asian region, such as Canada and Australia, are not going to sit back and allow powerful national or regional block competitors to emerge in Asia. The question is whether there is enough unity or political will or vision within the political and economic elites in the respective Asian countries to resist renewed domination from the North.

The failures of the national governing elites, on this as on other intra-regional and anti-globalisation strategies, is already part of the analyses and activities of civil society organisations in this region, but these need to be part of more concerted intra-regional alliances of popular organisations. The main strategic challenges seem to be

  • how - or whether - to revive and transform ASEAN as an instrument through which to negotiate alliances with putative Asian superpowers, especially China, and as a base for united action on the international plane, while at the same time resisting the lures and/or dangers of doing this within an Asian 'free trade' framework;
  • how to engage in influencing/changing the inter-governmental relations and economic programs within the ASEAN region itself, while at the same time having to challenge and change most of the current governments, and build national and cross-border civil society alliances for both purposes.

Some Contrary Trends and Contradictory Options by the Governments of these Regions and other Countries in the South

Even as civil society organisations try to take up these issues and challenges within their respective regions, they are faced with three further significant recent developments involving complex international and inter-regional initiatives.

International challenges - The processes within the WTO leading up to and in the WTO Ministerial in Cancún, and US and EU government pronouncements since, have brought powerfully to world public attention the recourse by the major powers to their own bilateral, plurilateral and regional strategies vis-à-vis other countries and other regional groupings, even as they have also formally promoted and used the global multilateral system for the interests of their own countries and/or regional groupings.

These modus operandii and processes, already well-evident to civil society analysts over many years, have now added greater emphasis to the importance of analysing, exposing and opposing these big power strategies, particularly their respective regional and inter-regional 'free trade' agreements, above all through the FTAA and Cotonnou Agreements, but also many others in relation to other regions.

Inter-regional changes - In part as a response to the added economic and political pressures on their countries and regional groupings by the major powers, many developing country governments are intensifying their efforts to strengthen not only their own political alliances and but also their South-South economic relations. Amongst other things, these latter are taking the form of proposed (free-er) trade agreements between themselves bilaterally, as between South Africa and Brazil, or between South Africa and India; and/or between their respective regions, as in the case of MERCOSUR and SADC. These accommodations to and apparent adoptions of the dominant free trade paradigm by governments - which are supposedly resisting the global powers and questioning the global free trade system/regime, pose significant and urgent challenges to their respective CSOs which are opposed to the expansion and even the continuation of global neo-liberal system.

2.3 Intra-regional alternatives - Both of the above (more recent) developments are adding urgency and greater impetus to the long-standing commitments of many social movement analysts and activists in these countries and regions with regard to their engagements and cooperation around regional strategies and programs on economic, social, environmental and other areas of integration and development. These many changes and challenges are also:

  • reinforcing the importance of political cooperation through cross-border initiatives between CSOs themselves for direct people-driven processes in all these spheres in their regions;
  • as well as raising more acutely the challenges posed in relation to the official inter-governmental regionalisation processes and the official structures that have been created (but have largely not functioned as required) over many years.

Some Common Perspectives and Strategic Aims for Civil Society Organisations in the South

In addition to the above - and other - specificities of these three regions, there are clearly also some significant commonalities and bases for comparative analysis and cooperative efforts between civil society organisations within and between these regions, particularly towards

  1. Interrogating, exposing and opposing the US' economic, political and strategic/military interests, and the * multilateral inter-regional, * bilateral country to country, and even * unilateral, trade-and-investment strategies being pursued by the US as the major global super power; but without losing sight of the parallel political (although less overtly militaristic) role and economic aims, and the broadly similar trade-and-investment strategies being used by the European Union.
  2. Analysing the role and positions of the larger, economically stronger and dominant countries within each of these groupings (particularly South Africa in SADC and Africa, and Brazil in MERCOSUR and Latin America), and their potentials to act
    • as cooperative and supportive regional partners/leaders, OR
    • as self-serving regional 'hegemons', or even 'sub-imperialists'
      and, in this context, the importance of their respective civil society organisations in identifying and developing cross-border peoples alliances to promote the former and prevent this latter.
  3. Recognising also the diversity of situations within and between the participating countries in these three key regions in the South, particularly where there are also numbers of small(er) and poor(er) countries, more especially in Southern Africa and South-East Asia, although in a relative sense also in South America; and the need to
    • negotiate policies to deal with uneven levels of development and power between all regional partners, and even conflicting intra-regional interests;
    • at the same time as working on common interests and joint strategies in relation to outside forces and the global system in general.
  4. Analysing and promoting in public understanding the more recent trends towards free trade relations within these respective regions, which will be contradictory to more balanced relations, as in 3.3 above; and exposing and opposing the emerging trends towards accommodations by governments in these regions to the dominant global trade paradigm and power relations through
    • seeking to create free trade agreements between their respective regions as supposedly different 'South-South' relations;
    • proposing to enter into free trade agreements with the largest and most powerful countries of the South, India and China;
      which could reinforce the potential roles of these latter not only as 'countervailing' powers against the dominant powers of the North, but as new hegemons in the South.
  5. Understanding the diversity and uneveness of development of social movements in the different countries and the respective regions; and focusing analyses and efforts on
    • the need to strengthen such popular forces from local to national and regional levels in each and every sector and in each and every region;
    • the need to do so particularly through cross-border intra-regional networks and inter-regional alliances in 'their' respective continents;
    • the need to do so simultaneously through inter-regional and sectoral alliances with other regions elsewhere in the South;
    • the importance of developing these into alliances with counterparts in the North, particularly with civil society networks located within the hegemonic super-powers.

Building "Alternatives Regionalisms"

The economic logic in building 'alternative regionalisms' as a base for challenging the currently dominant global system and regime could also contribute towards a 'deglobalisation' of the world. This would create a world of cooperating nations within regions negotiating their specific policies as well as cooperating with other regions on matters of shared global concern.
The political impetus towards this strategy will depend on the commitment and capacities of non-governmental popular forces to get their governments to pursue this strategic vision.