The Transnational Institute (TNI) was founded in 1974 as the international programme of the Washington DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. For nearly 50 years, TNI’s history has been entwined with the history of global social movements and their struggle for economic, social and environmental justice.
TNI throughout its history has:
- Frequently identified crucial issues on the horizon – third world debt, World Trade Organisation, corporate power, carbon trading - and played a key role in putting them on the agenda for social movements.
- Been bold in tackling structures of power, even though this led to the assassination of its first director, Orlando Letelier by the Chilean secret service.
- Had a deep mutually respectful relationship with grassroots movements, from national liberation movements in 1970s and 1980s to those comprising the global justice movement more recently.
- Brought together and catalysed networks, from the foundation in 1977 of one of the first global organisations studying transnational corporations, Transnational Information Exchange, to the formation of the Linking Alternatives Network in 2006.
- Dedicated itself to putting forward alternative proposals to reflect the just world that TNI, its Fellows, staff, and networks are committed to turning into reality.
Beginnings in the US…
It all began at a high-powered State Department meeting full of generals and defence industry executives in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. When one official declared, "If this group cannot bring about disarmament, then no one can," two young men in the audience looked at each other sceptically and decided to get to know each other better.
Within two years, former White House staffer Marcus Raskin and State Department lawyer Richard Barnet had left the Kennedy Administration and founded the Institute for Policy Studies, where they could more freely "speak truth to power.” IPS soon established a name for itself as it published primers that became seminal texts for the anti-Vietnam War movement.
… to going global in Amsterdam
Nine years later in October 1972, at Barnet and Raskin’s request, Paris American Susan George arranged a dinner for them and for philanthropist Samuel Rubin with French political figures and intellectuals who all opposed the Vietnam War.
Some twenty five progressive people met that evening at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris (a renowned haunt of figures like Hemingway and Lenin) to discuss setting up the Transnational Institute in Europe.
After dinner, Samuel Rubin spoke to declare his hopes for TNI: “Since we all agree that the world is suffering from war, from inequities, from the inhuman treatment of perhaps more than two thirds of humanity, let us come together to examine these questions and to see what answers we can collectively produce that may perhaps deliver us, as humanity, as the human race, into a world different from the one we are living in today.”
In 1973, Eqbal Ahmad, Pakistani journalist, professor, and dedicated revolutionary was commissioned to take a five-week trip across Europe to consult about the idea of the Institute with over 200 individuals representing a wide political and intellectual spectrum. He arrived as TNI's first Director at an empty building opposite the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, given to TNI by philanthropist Ed Jans, on 9 November 1973. Soon he had turned TNI into an intellectual hub, bursting with activity.
Building a fellowship of activist scholars
Ahmad began awarding fellowships to support the work of promising individuals scholars and writers from around the world, including the Booker prize-winning novelist John Berger, specialists like John Gittings, Richard Gott, Ernst Utrech, “Race and Class" editor A. Sivanandan and many others. Together they prepared a common framework for TNI’s programme. Ahmad thus laid the groundwork for an international network of scholar-activists committed to social change, which typifies TNI to this day.
Between 1974 and 1976, Ahmad also established close working relationships with a wide range of progressive organisations, such as Counter Information Services (CIS), the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).
TNI joined IPS in leading an international campaign to isolate the military dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile. In 1974, TNI held its first conference around the publication, Lessons from Chile, in the aftermath of the military coup with many exiled Chileans including three former ministers of the Allende government in attendance.
Two years later, Orlando Letelier, previously Chilean Foreign and Defence Minister and Ambassador to the US, was appointed director of TNI. Letelier not only persuaded the Dutch government to cancel a $60 million loan for Chilean industrial development, but also began a major programme to promote the New International Economic Order. On 21 September, 1976 Orlando Letelier together with Ronni Karpen Moffitt, a young fundraiser at IPS, were brutally assassinated in Washington DC with a car bomb. TNI and IPS investigators working in cooperation with the FBI, revealed the involvement of the Chilean secret police, DINA.
TNI and IPS have continued to fight to bring to justice those responsible for the death of Letelier and thousands of other Chileans. Each year, IPS hosts the Letelier-Moffit human rights award to honour these fallen colleagues while celebrating new heroes of the human rights movement in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas.
Accompanying struggles for liberation
Under the directorship of Basker Vashee, a Zimbabwean trained at the London School of Economics, TNI became the place in Europe for African liberation movements to meet. Basker played a key role in the Zimbabwean national liberation movement and participated in the Lancaster House talks, which resulted in the first democratic elections of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.
TNI helped link up social movements working to boycott Apartheid South Africa, and also published research, such as Black South Africa Explodes on the 1976 uprising in Soweto, and US Arms Deliveries to South Africa: The Italian Connection, which drew attention to those propping up the regime. TNI also facilitated briefings for Dutch parliamentarians by officials from South Africa’s neighbouring states on the impact of South Africa’s destabilisation efforts. In 1983, Thabo Mbeki, then an ANC delegate and later President of South Africa, and his brother Moeletsi visited TNI on several occasions to discuss the work on South Africa, which included post-apartheid scenarios.
TNI actively supported other liberation struggles, notably in Central America against US intervention and in the Philippines against the Marcos dictatorship. It also worked with the Turkish labour movement in opposing Turkey’s military coup. In 1977, TNI even sheltered the controversial CIA whistleblower Philip Agee, author of Inside the Company.
In 1975, TNI set up its Feminist project, which integrated gender into much of TNI’s work. The project brought together women leaders from the North and South around a wide range of issues such as nuclear power, women in the military, and in the textile industry. The group included Wendy Chapkis, Sheila Rowbotham, Eileen Utrecht and Cynthia Enloe.
Confronting corporate globalisation
For more than three decades, TNI has worked on issues related to corporate globalisation –now recognised as critical grounding for today’s “Global Justice Movement”. TNI’s work was often undertaken several years before donors and the general public recognised the significance of the examined issues. The institute frequently served as the intellectual catalyst for movements that then worked to raise public awareness.
Perhaps more than any other writer, TNI fellow Susan George has popularised understanding of power and the consequences of globalisation. Her first book, How the Other Half Dies; the Real Reasons for World Hunger, published in 1976, proved to be a ground-breaking work and an invaluable resource helping countless activists understand how global corporate and state power operates. Now Board Chair of TNI, Scholar-Activist George has published over a dozen influential books on many subjects of concern to social movements. Another TNI Fellow, Howard Wachtel, wrote what is still seen as the seminal work on global finance – The Money Mandarins.
In 1978, TNI helped set up -- and still hosts -- the Transnational Information Exchange (TIE) to support the international labour movement and others with studies of multinational corporations and their role in shaping global trends in production and consumption.
In 1982, TNI started working actively on Third World Debt, setting up a debt project in 1985, many years before others made debt a popular issue. Susan George’s A Fate Worse than Debt and the Debt Boomerang are classics in the field. In 1995, TNI was among the first to draw attention to the dangers of the World Trade Organisation, producing the only critical materials available on the WTO in its early years, and running countless workshops for activists in Europe and the South. These activities eventually culminated in the historic 1999 Battle of Seattle which successfully politicised international trade.
In 2009, TNI has returned to its critique of corporate power with renewed vigour, launching a global campaign to stop corporate impunity, looking to expose the architecture of legal impunity that corporations enjoy and putting forward proposals for binding legislation to prevent corporate crimes.
Building links between grassroots, academics and policy makers
In order to build closer ties to social movements, the Institute between 1985 and 1995 developed a complement of project staff in Amsterdam who took regional responsibilities for Africa, Latin America, Asia, and worked to support the international fellowship. This consolidated TNI’s close relationships with activists and their networks worldwide.
Time and again, TNI emphasised the importance of involving those at the frontline of struggles in discussions with researchers and policy makers. In 1982, for example, TNI held a conference on military conversion that brought workers and peace researchers from Britain, Italy and Germany to discuss conversion from military to socially useful production within the aircraft industry. In 1990, following the fall of the Wall, TNI hosted an historic encounter between democracy activists in Eastern Europe with Western activists from the peace, feminist, environmental and labour movements.
TNI famously ensured that peasants have a voice in international drugs policy. For the first time, thanks to TNI, representatives of Latin American farmers attended the UN Special Assembly on Drugs in New York in 1998. TNI is now recognised as one of the world’s foremost non-governmental institutes and authorities on drugs.
Confronting militarism long before the War on Terror
For decades, TNI has been at the forefront of movements against militarism and for disarmament. From the late 1970s, the institute hosted regular activities focused on NATO and the militarisation of Europe.
In 1982, TNI Fellow and CND leader Mary Kaldor and TNI Associate (later TNI Director) Dan Smith together published Disarming Europe, on disarmament, non-alignment and new forms of defence.
In the 1990s, TNI’s Indian Fellows Achin Vanaik and Praful Bidwai emerged as key resources for the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1995, TNI set up a New Non-Proliferation Treaty project together with WISE in The Netherlands, publishing Beyond the Bomb: The Extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Future of Nuclear Weapons. The same year, TNI published a prescient book, The Next Threat: Western Perceptions of Islam, co-written by Jochen Hippler, TNI Director from 1992-1994, known for his deep knowledge of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Muslim world. The book highlighted the dangers of western policy in the Middle East and debunked myths about the nature of Islam and Islamic movements.
In the wake of the Kosovo War in 1999, TNI Fellow Mariano Aguirre also facilitated debates in many countries to ask whether ‘humanitarian intervention’ was being used to justify military interventions.
As early as 1997, TNI warned that the US was eager to launch a new war on Iraq. As the war broke out in 2003, TNI Fellow Walden Bello played a key role building bridges between the anti-globalisation and anti-militarist wings of the new social movements, thereby helping to forge the largest global anti-war movement in history. Other Fellows, like Phyllis Bennis, a US-based writer, activist and expert on the Middle East and Kamal Mahdi, an exiled Iraqi scholar have consistently opposed the occupation of Iraq; Bennis’ work has also served as a compass for movements concerned with US policy towards other countries in the region, including Iran and Palestine.
TNI was also instrumental in analysing the infrastructure of empire, developing an innovative google earth map of more than 800 foreign military bases worldwide and hosting for a few years the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases.
Constructively building alternatives
TNI has never been satisfied to be only a critical voice, but has always devoted itself to evaluating and proposing alternative policies to promote democracy, equity and sustainability. In 1994, TNI published Beyond Bretton Woods by TNI Fellow John Cavanagh and others, which mapped alternatives for the global economic order. Fifteen years later, this book now appears prophetic in the light of the current global economic crisis.
In 1999, TNI undertook the New Politics project to examine the perceived limits of representative democracy and the new momentum – especially in Latin America – for more direct, participatory forms of democracy. The project documented, publicised and evaluated actual experiences with popular democracy, as well as the formation of new kinds of political parties emerging from social movements in Europe, across Latin America, and more recently in Asia. The Project's foresight was confirmed as one such party after another took power in Latin America beginning with the 2002 election to the presidency of Brazil of "Lula" (Luis Inacio da Silva), leader of the Workers Party.
When the World Social Forum met for the first time in Porto Alegre in 2001, TNI was well placed to serve as an important intellectual resource for the movements that converged there, and was able to keep its finger on the pulse of the new global movement for justice.
At the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004, TNI helped catalyse an international network of 130 members in 38 countries dedicated to ending privatisation and seeking public alternatives for water delivery. The project has since documented successful democratic examples of public water management worldwide, drawing more and more cities into the project in the process. A policy shift towards alternatives to privatisation is now clearly under way, and the network has been key in creating the space for Public-Public Partnerships, that is, “twinning” arrangements between public water operators. This network is now the civil society representative in the UN’s Global Water Operators Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA)
Ready to tackle the convergence of crises
In 2008, as it became clear that the world faced a convergence of crises – rising food prices, financial and economic collapse, and an impending climate catastrophe – TNI was quick to respond to the challenge.
The institute had long warned that current economic policies were unsustainable and had targeted financial liberalisation as particularly dangerous. TNI fellow Walden Bello raised the alarm of its implications as soon as the Asian financial crisis broke in 1997. In 2007, TNI’s Fellows’ meeting explored the ‘Power of Money’ in the global economy, and discussed the need for regulatory mechanisms that are now part of the official agenda.
When the financial crisis took hold in October 2008, TNI was at the forefront of organising a civil society response, issued as the Beijing declaration. The demands expressed in this manifesto have been at the heart of the civil society response ever since. As the private debt crisis turned into a public debt crisis in the EU, TNI has worked closely with its ally the Corporate European Observatory to critique failing austerity policies, challenge the capture of the European Commission by financial interests and to defend democracy in Europe challenged by economic policies that put markets before people.
The environmental crisis has also been on TNI’s agenda for many years. In 1990, TNI began a project that eventually resulted in the publication, in 1998, of Privatising Nature, inspiring a whole new generation of activists to make the connection between ecology and the economic paradigm. In 2003, TNI began work on challenging the carbon trading market. Initially, TNI’s critique of free market mechanisms for resolving climate change was not well received, even by environmental NGOs. However, by 2008 when NASA scientist James Hansen called carbon trading a “giant scam”, TNI’s critique had progressively become part of the consensus. In 2012, TNI developed on this work as it critically unpacked proposals for a 'Green Economy' made at the Rio+20 conference in Brazil, which obscure attempts by corporations to further commodify 'nature' by pricing nature as a new marketable asset.
In 2014, TNI proudly celebrated 40 years, receiving accolades and appreciation from renowned activists and academics around the world. More than 40 years on, TNI’s founding spirit of engaged scholarship in the service of progressive, transnational social movements remains as lively as ever. Its foresightedness, capacity to produce high calibre research materials for popular and official audiences alike, and its credibility with the important movements of our time make it an exceptionally valuable institute, think-tank and public resource.
- TNI year by year (1973 till 2000)
- 40 important, interesting and quirky facts about TNI