Worlds Apart

31 January 2001

Wearing comedy business suits, complete with fat cigars, dark glasses and outrageous jewellery, 'Franc Suisse', 'Mark Deutsch' and 'Dave Dollar' stride purposefully towards the barbed wire and lines of riot police. Surrounded by TV cameras, they walk straight into the security zone of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Mingling with the chief executives of the world's biggest corporations and their invited high-level political guests, they distribute leaflets that set out alternatives to the global economy. The police finally catch on and arrest the Marx Brothers-style executives and their 'lawyer'. They are dragged out into the snow and questioned by policemen deeply embarrassed that their ring of steel was so easily penetrated.

The action highlights how, in Davos at least, symbols count. People wearing jeans could not get within miles of the Swiss ski resort; yet suits, even comedy ones, could march straight in. So determined were the police to block out the voices of dissent that the mighty now conduct their discussions behind police barricades that spread for miles through the valley.

As outside the halls of Davos, so inside, where the meetings were closed to the public, with just a few carefully chosen non-government groups and individuals invited to address the delegates, who were mainly male, north American and European. This year, one World Economic Forum (WEF) delegate suggested that if our world was visited by beings from outer space, then the elite gathered in Davos should be responsible for speaking for humanity. If Planet Earth had a board of directors, this would be it.

The WEF is the deeply influential international club for big business. Its past political successes include starting the Uruguay round of the Gatt, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). Most of globalisation's leading players were there. Sir John Browne and Mark Moody-Stuart, of BP and Shell, rubbed shoul ders with the heads of state of the main oil producing nations. Yet these architects of globalisation are clearly worried, not so much by the protesters in the street but the new ideas emerging from dozens of citizens' movements from all over the world. The comfort once found in the old ideas is crumbling, and their rhetoric of growth, markets, liberalisation and competition - still reassuringly exchanged between the executives and leading public figures - was not like in previous years.

For once, there was a real sense that globalisation is in trouble, and the 'board of directors' was neither asking the right questions nor had a clue what to do. How are the ecological limits of a finite planet to be respected in the face of policies designed to promote never ending growth? How is the widening gap between rich and poor to be closed when many of the signals that companies respond to are designed to reward greed? How can the needs of the 10bn people who may inhabit this world in 2050 be met without drastic changes to consump tion patterns? These and other critical questions were not on the Davos agenda.

Only Public Eye, a non-governmental group not invited to participate in the main meeting, had any answers. Hiring an asthma clinic and staging debates on trade liberalisation, corporate control and financial policy, its panels and workshops were open, and the clear message was that a new alternative economics is crystalising from the global NGO networking. It has at its core sustainable development, environmental protection and social justice. It is, people confirmed, gathering momentum in all places.

Witness Porto Alegre, 5,000 miles away in the radical capital of Rio Grande do Sul, southern Brazil. Here, running concurrently with Davos, 12,000 people were last weekend meeting for the first Social Forum. If Davos was for the elite only, this meeting of 12,000 people, of all ages and from 120 countries, was the opposite. Gathering in vast lecture halls of the Catholic University, their debate was passionate and pointed. There was a tangible sense of an emerging global movement, with a striking diversity of age, political traditions, practical experience and cultural background.

The Porto Alegre event came at a time when the institutions of the global market face a crisis of legitimacy. The Seattle, Washington and Prague protests have triggered it by drawing public attention to organisations that have long been just bewildering initials - such as IMF, WTO, Gatt and Nafta - and to the corporations that drive them, and to the unaccountability of the politicians who go to their meetings.

It is the economic reality, and its devastating social and ecological consequences makes the more far-sighted members of the global elite uneasy. At Porto Alegre, the reality of how most of the world must live was presented with angry passion by the very people who are suffering it.

Trevor Inguane, part of the South African delegation, reinforced a constant theme of the conference: that the levels of inequality and injustice are continuing to rise, and it just has to stop. He gave the latest UN figures. The 20% at the top end of the global income scale earn 86 times more than the 20% at the lower end. In 1997, the figure was 74; in the 1960s, it was 30.

Similarly shocking figures on trade were presented. As forecast, world trade has expanded rapidly: it is now 17 times greater than 50 years ago. But, over that period, Latin America's share of world trade has gone down from 11% to 5% and Africa's from 8% to 2%. No wonder there was such contempt in the many workshops and huge plenaries of this social forum for the mantras coming from Davos that economic growth will eliminate poverty.

Where the elite talked to the elite in Davos and danced the night away in clubs, the anger at Porto Alegre was channelled into practical organisation. Apart from exchanging information about local alternatives and how to work collectively on trade, financial institutions and sustainable production, the many movements there - such as Via Campesina, the international movement of peasant and small farmers movement, and CUT, the giant radical Brazilian trade union federation - were already planning their next actions.

Their presence will be felt this year at Quebec for negotiations over Nafta, and at the G8 summit in Genoa.

Most dramatically, 'the long march' - from the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo to 'the wall of death' separating Mexico from the US - was being planned for 2003. More people have been shot trying to enter the US at this frontier than died attempting to get through the wall dividing Berlin. 'We take their goods but they don't like our people so we are taking our people to them ourselves,' says one of the organisers of the march.

Some solutions were close at hand. Porto Alegre, an industrial port, is a working example of what can be achieved. The radical Brazilian Workers Party has governed the city for 12 years through a sophisticated and deeply-rooted participatory process based on neighbourhood assemblies. These decide priorities and elect delegates who must apply city-wide criteria to draw up a budget, finally agreed upon by the municipality.

They have rid the city of corruption, led to a redistribution of wealth and earned the city a UN Habitat prize for the best governed city of the world. It is just one working pointer to 'another world' in the proclamation of the forum.

Copyright 2001 The Guardian