The new “alternative regionalisms” being promoted by social movements are, on the one hand, 'alternative' to the increasingly neo-liberal directions being taken, and the regional trade and investment liberalisation programs being adopted or imposed in the existing regional groupings of countries of the South. Social movement strategies for alternative regionalisms are also designed to counter the so-called 'regional support' aid programs containing neo-liberal conditionalities set by foreign governments, particularly the US and the EU; by international institutions, particularly the IMF, World Bank and the WTO; and by transnational corporations.
Thus, the alternative regionalisms being promoted are alternatives to what governments of the South are currently doing, or not doing, but should be doing; as well as being alternatives to what the governments of the North and other agencies are trying to impose on the regions of the South. However, the new ideas and debates on alternative regionalisms are also expressed in the plural because of the conviction amongst social movement analysts and activists that:
They are still at the stage of exploring a variety of possible socio-economic and economic alternatives reflecting different political and ideological perspectives and principles, and social/cultural modalities within their respective countries and regions.
And there are other new(er) economic and environmental perspectives and challenges emerging within their organisations and communities, countries and regions, and in relation to the planetary eco-system; and these alternative paradigms have yet to be fully explored and developed to shift the entire global scenario.
And despite the many common aims and similar concerns within and between the respective regional initiatives underway, the eventual outcomes of consultative regional processes among social movements themselves, and engagements between them and their governments, separately or together, will not be exactly the same for the different regional groupings emerging in the South.
There are, however, growing interactions and exchanges and mutual learning, and a number of commonalities within the debates and the proposals that are emerging from the regional and inter-regional interactions between social movements in the different regions of the world, and within their respective regional groupings, in regard to alternative regionalisms.
The first and overriding imperative is that the policies and programs within the emerging regions of the South cannot and must not be dictated by external agencies, such as the IMF and the World Bank. Regional cooperation and integration processes must not be constrained by uniform blanket terms and conditionalities, and the tight and a priori time-frames set by the WTO. These integration projects must not be shaped to fit the prescriptions (and interests) of powerful foreign governments and 'donor agencies', or international investors and extractors/exporters, transnational manufacturing/mining or service companies etc. The pace and modalities of these historic regionalisation processes must be shaped and driven by processes internal to these regions, between peoples' organisations, as such, and between them and their governments, (current or future).
The second requirement relates to the extreme complexities of creating regional programs and inclusive regional institutions, and policy instruments that reflect and accommodate the very different circumstances and diverse domestic interests within the participating countries. Thus, all such regional arrangements must emerge through inclusive democratic negotiations for the creation of mutually acceptable and appropriate policies and programs within these regions. This is all the more essential in the context in which a number of these regions of the South are characterised by huge imbalances in size and levels of development between their many smaller developing and least developed (LDC) member states and the larger economies within such regions. It is only through their own joint engagements with the respective dominant governmental and entrepreneurial forces within and through collective regional negotiations, and according to agreed criteria and principles, that the smaller or economically weaker countries and communities would be able to create more favourable terms and equitable outcomes in their (already existing and/or future alternative) regional relations.
The directly associated premise to ensure corrective and equitable regional arrangements tha would address the challenges of uneven development within and between the participating countries, is that cross-border economic programs must counter the laissez faire or unregulated operations of 'market forces'. The very raison d'etre of business ventures is to seek out and take advantage of or exploit the disparate levels of development, the unequal economic and technological capacities, the uneven labour, gender, and other social, health and safety and environmental regulations etc in the different countries within each region. Under conditions of extensive liberalisation in these countries, such 'free market' forces and their cross-border ventures inevitably reinforce these inequities and imbalances.
Such exploitative strategies have to be countered by public institutions and regulations but there are many forms of political, technical and other weaknesses in the existing governments in the countries of the South, most of which are also under the sway of neo-liberal forces from within and without. Thus, such regional policies and programs cannot be left to largely inaccessible remote inter-governmental negotiations and 'top-down' processes. Inter-governmental agreements and joint programs are intrinsic to multi-national regional development programs but, in order to ensure full information and effective public inputs towards the creation of appropriate regional development programs, these have to be built through 'bottom-up' processes of cross-border popular cooperation and participation, before and also within formal regional decision-shaping processes and engagements.
The emergent regional entities will also have to be created gradually and built incrementally. This must, above all, include "special and differential" terms to accommodate the diversities and different levels of capacity and preparedness of various economies and communities. Such flexibilities would also allow for sub-regional programs within ‘real’ geo-economic regions that straddle borders, and which have been artificially divided by political frontiers. These 'real' regions often include the same natural resources, especially shared river courses and water resources, and the same ecological/topographical and climatic features. They also often include the same peoples/communities that have been arbitrarily split up by the boundaries drawn by colonialism. Thus, regional groupings should be conceived of as the negotiated (re)groupment and reunification of communities and local peoples, as well as the regroupment between the nations within which they are situated. Such communities of nations should be (re)conceived as multifaceted processes rather than as simple unitary integrated economic or political entities or eventual outcomes.
In this context, one of the vital aims of regionalisation programs for participating countries is actually to restructure much of their industrial and agricultural production and to strategically redirect much of their production and trade towards their own local, national and regional markets. On the one hand, this will reduce such countries' external dependencies – especially on international food importation - and their excessive exposure to external shocks emanating from the international economy. On the other hand, the re-conceptualisation of the role of trade in relation to development, and the reduction of international trade, altogether, is increasingly being recognised throughout the world as a strategic imperative in the circumstances of looming global environmental and climate instability and possible catastrophe.
Alternative regions for an alternative world
Global theorists and the promoters of economic globalisation depict the 'breaking up' of the purported single integrated global economy as boding ill for the world. In fact the ‘single integrated global economy’ is largely an ideological construct, a political instrument and economic weapon deployed by the stronger economies and governments in support of the global operations and requirements of ‘their’ transnational corporations. At the same time they defend their own national economies and regional groupings, as necessary.
Globalist theorists paint scenarios of growing competition, increasing conflicts and deepening global divisions and poverty if ‘the global economy’ is challenged and changed. Whereas, it is precisely to the contrary. It is the imposition of one set of 'global' neo-liberal rules, and one dominant ‘liberalised trade and investment driven’ paradigm favouring the stronger economies and their corporations, that have created the increasing polarisation across the world today between the rich and the poor, between the big and the small, the strong and the weak ….. and between ‘people’ and ‘the planet’.
It is the economic globalisation promoted by neo-liberal theorists and institutions - and the governments and corporations behind them - that is deepening the poverty of billions of people in the world, in favour of small powerful and privileged elites – mainly in the North but also in the South . This, in turn, is creating the conditions for increasing social tensions and socio-political conflicts in the world today. Furthermore, the reality is that 'neo-mercantilist' trade wars are already underway between the largest powers and from within their own respective regions : against each other, in each other's 'spheres of influence', and against the ‘emerging’ economies and regional groupings or regional cooperation plans between countries of the South.
The creation of regional communities of nations and peoples that are gradually being formulated and promoted by social movements, and even some of the more progressive and visionary governments of the South – such as UNASUR (Uniao das Nacoes do Sur) in Latin America and the AU (African Union) in Africa - hold out the opposite potential to what crude globalisation forces demand and foster. On the one hand the political unity and strategic economic cooperation between such groupings of countries in the South can improve their ‘bargaining power’ in relation to the North, reduce their dependence upon and subordination to the governments, corporations and economies of the North, and contribute towards shifting the global balance of economic and political power.
At a broader systemic or ‘epochal’ level, it is, in large measure, the reconfiguration of global relations through the creation of alternative regional groupings and regional strategies shaped by different, equitable and sustainable development paradigms that will contribute to essential processes of ‘de-globalisation’ [Walden Bello], Such regional (re)groupments could create a range of more varied regional/continental socio-economic, ecological and political communities of nations within which diverse and appropriate policies and programs can be democratically developed and applied. This could incrementally erode the single dominant global economy and destructive neo-liberal paradigm.
Such alternatives to neo-liberal globalisation would not only change people-to-people and South-South relations and situations, but also South-North relations and inter-actions, and this would be to the benefit of all of humanity and our common planetary home.
[Extract from longer paper, submitted to Global Social Policy, April 2007]