Field Notes of a Political-Economist turned NGO Activist

by Salimah Valiani

published in VIKALP Alternatives, February 2004. Vol. XI, No. 4, pp.71-76. 

For the past few decades, the world economy as we know it has been shifting to something new through radical restructuring and reorganization. Within this context, the unfolding “anti-globalization movement” – which may be seen as a response to this restructuring and reorganization – is an important field within which to identify and define current theory and practice. According to Antonio Gramsci, questions of theory and practice and the identity between them are raised particularly in transitional moments of history, that is, when the movement of historical transformation is at its most rapid. The point of such questioning, as Gramsci says, is to make the “practical forces unleashed” more efficient and expansive and the “theoretical programmes” more realistically justified.

Unlike most critiques of the “anti-globalization movement”, this analysis draws from two years of work within the economic policy sector of the ‘NGO-world’; two years of habitual consumption of new information, meetings with community groups and non-governmental organizations in Canada and various parts of Asia working to change socio-economic policy, and earnest attempts to precede and follow ‘action’ with careful reflection on goals and objectives. It should be noted that though for the social scientist, two years in the field is a long time, for the social activist it is merely a beginning.


Marxists and socialists have long viewed capitalism as a global process. The starting point of this process has been a topic of debate, with some arguing it began as far back as the 16th century and others arguing for sometime in the 19th century. Within such a historical frame, changes of the last few decades can be seen in perspective and linked to underlying contradictions or/and cycles in the world capitalist economy.

Giovanni Arrighi, for one, traces four ‘systemic cycles of accumulation’ in the history of the capitalist world economy. These are: the Genoese cycle (beginning circa 1450-1640), the Dutch cycle (circa 1640-1790), the British cycle (circa 1790-1925) and the American cycle (circa 1925-present). [See The Long Twentieth Century, Verso, 1994]

Within each cycle of accumulation, a phase of ‘material expansion’ is followed by a phase of ‘financial expansion’. A phase of material expansion consists of continuous change whereby the capitalist world economy grows steadily along a well-defined path. A phase of financial expansion consists of discontinuous change whereby the established path has reached its limits and the world economy shifts onto another path via radical restructuring and reorganization.

The financial expansion of Arrighi’s ‘American cycle of accumulation’ begins circa 1970. In more concrete terms, the surge of large loans made to Southern states by Northern banks during the 1970s, the move by large pharmaceutical corporations to research and patent Southern seeds and medicinal plants from the early 1980s, and the ‘Uruguay Round’ of negotiations under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) beginning in the late 80s – can all be seen as instances of restructuring or reorganization resulting from limits of the material expansion of 1925-1970.

In terms of  ‘practice’ or  ‘action’, rather than simply opposing the neoliberal trend of the past few decades, this type of theoretical formulation encourages us to uncover the limits and contradictions of what is referred to in Northern countries as the ‘Golden Age’ of capitalism (1950-1970). These limits and contradictions are at the heart of the shift to neoliberal policy by the early 1980s. Recognizing and examining these contradictions in their specific forms (for example, industry by industry) in turn allows us to search for alternative structures of production and trade, ones which have the potential of undoing the inequality of wealth and well-being between North and South – a historic feature of the world economy which was far from dismantled in the so-called Golden Age.

As opposed to basing their policy demands in far-reaching economic analysis of which the above may be one example, NGOs, especially in the North, tend to rely on the sketchy analytical tools of standard economists. A rarely defined “globalization” is thus identified as cause and effect of a wide range of phenomena: from neoliberal trade agreements, to the over-exploitation of natural resources, to structural adjustment plans. The solutions proposed are, in a word, a return to the Keynesian economics of the Golden Age.   

With regard to large corporations, NGO analysis tends to posit the political influence of large corporations on economic policy making as a recent phenomenon. It thereby overlooks the historic power of large corporations and leads to an  underestimation of the challenges involved in trying to oppose them. From the very early 20th century, large corporations of Western Europe, North America and Japan have been key in shaping what is now taken for granted to be ‘productive activity’, and indeed, ‘economy’. Economic wealth aside, this historic power of large corporations is one of immense cultural force, particularly in developed countries, where populations depend on mass produced goods to satisfy all of their basic needs. It is also a power built on long-standing political connections and know-how. To give just one example, strategizing by large corporations made for the abandonment of United Nations negotiations for a Code of Conduct on Transnational Corporations (TNCs), talks which began as far back as 1976. The negotiations broke-down because of the reluctance and hostility of some developed states, which opposed the obligations placed by the Code on TNCs.  

Instead of highlighting the role of particular developed country states in advancing corporate interests in various venues like the UN, and making these states the targets for action, NGOs tend to focus on entire institutions (IMF, WTO, etc). What is perhaps the most detrimental political outcome of this over-simplification is that it perpetuates the myth that multilateral institutions have forced all states to adopt neoliberal ideology and policies. This is a myth which the most powerful states – developed states of the North – are happy to have their citizens believe because it absolves these states of their responsibility in initiating the neoliberal shift, first at home and then within multilateral institutions.

The transformation of the International Monetary Fund provides the most vivid example of this. In the early 1980s, attempting to draw money capital back into their economies, the US Federal Reserve Bank and other central banks of Northern states increased interest rates. This also had the effect of increasing the cost of debt servicing for Southern states having accumulated large debts when interest rates were very low. To deal with the consequent debt crises, as well as to increase speculation opportunities for large investors, Northern states moved to transform the role of the IMF. This entailed reshaping the IMF from a minor lender of last resort providing short term financing, into a major enforcer of foreign debt service and the leading advocate for liberalization of Southern financial markets. New roles for the World Bank and other development banks – such as the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) – were all part of this shift.         

Along with poor analysis combined with Keynesian solutions which are usually ill-suited to the realities of our times, many NGOs champion a rhetoric of social justice and democracy. The latter is very palatable and the former easily dismissed in pacifist Northern countries like Canada, the net result being that politicians adopt the social justice rhetoric of NGOs while continuing to quietly pursue aggressive liberalization goals in multilateral settings. Knowing that this rhetoric reflects  public sentiment, the Canadian government now almost regularly invites NGOs to ‘consult’ with relevant officials, giving the impression that the concerns raised by NGOs are being considered. What is lost in these gestures is that more often than not, NGOs are the very last to be consulted, usually in the final instances before or during international conferences. These are the instances, of course, when photo opportunities translate into important political capital for the Canadian government.


Most NGOs employ a variety of strategies and tactics to achieve three principle goals: to raise awareness around issues, to attract media attention, and to effect changes to specific policy positions.

Beginning with the last goal in the list first, the main strategy used to effect changes to specific policies is the mobilization of individuals and organizations to support the policy change. Tactics here include: the publication of reports (often containing original empirical data and fresh approaches to standard data) to substantiate the policy change, and national or/and international letter-writing campaigns to relevant government officials. Effective organizations are strategic in their use of this strategy because it is near impossible for individuals and organizations to keep-up when the specific policy changes being chased are too numerous. Taking the movement as a whole, this underlines the importance of unity: if NGOs, community groups and coalitions do not come together on a few objectives in the medium to longer-run, several short-lived efforts will exhaust great energies while accomplishing little.  

Returning to the first two goals, at first glance awareness-raising and attaining media coverage seem to be laudable goals, particularly in North America, where the media have little scope for topics pertaining to the economy. Upon deeper consideration, however, these goals should themselves be strategies used to achieve certain objectives or publicize well-defined demands which go beyond good rhetoric. In the absence of well-defined demands, demonstrations, international action days, shareholder actions, and even parallel forums may gain media attention, but the coverage will remain superficial and the effects in terms of awareness-raising will be fleeting. One further question with which all political actors must contend is what does raising awareness around an issue actually accomplish and how is this measured? More specific to our area of interest: even when we succeed in exposing the politics behind the economic deal-making, how does this affect the multidimensional power of capital?

A minority of NGOs – mostly in the South – begin with very specific goals at the microeconomic level, only to end-up posing significant challenges to the ongoing process of commodification which is capitalism. In contrast to the generalization that all countries have been completely absorbed into the world capitalist system, the real world offers several layers of life which have yet to be integrated into money economies or/and international exchange systems. In several parts of Asia, NGOs have set-out to work with indigenous peoples surviving in relatively self-sufficient, ecologically-sound economies. Some of these efforts have resulted in legal and political battles to safeguard ancestral land and resource rights which has meant confronting large corporations (both private and public) attempting to appropriate indigenous lands for their own profitable purposes. What these peoples’ groups and NGOs are succeeding in doing – in many cases without attracting much media attention at all – is to prevent certain corporate sectors from being able to proceed with profit-making activity at any and all costs. At the same time, these groups are affirming livelihood systems which are viable alternatives to capitalist production and consumption.    

In Orissa, India, for example, the Canadian company ALCAN has been unsuccessful in its attempts to build a massive bauxite mine and processing plant for the past 10 years. This successful resistance – on the part of residents of the area who oppose mineral production because they do not see it as economically and socially productive –  has however, meant lives: three indigenous activists were killed by state security following a peaceful planning meeting in December 2000.      

Similarly, but on a much larger scale, mining investment in Indonesia has dropped from 2 billion USD in 1999, to 170 million USD in 2002. This is in no small part due to the organizing of indigenous groups and NGOs who have recognized the full costs -social, economic and environmental – of large scale mining in ecologically-sensitive, island settings. In addition to questioning the norms of an industry which has been associated with armed protection and the violation of human rights, Indonesian activists are forcing a national debate around the Indonesian economy’s dependency on metal mineral extraction. Even in narrow economic terms, metal mineral production has not been particularly enriching for resource-rich states since the collapse of world metal mineral prices in the early 1980s.     

Another example of effective NGO activity in the economic policy sector is the information and training offered by Southern NGOs to Southern trade negotiators in the areas of investment, competition, and government procurement during the year leading-up to the September 2003 WTO Ministerial in Cancun. For these NGO actors it is clear that well-organized, well-informed Southern governments can constitute one of the strongest forces of opposition to corporations empowered by the political apparatus of Northern governments. The choice to strategize around preventing the birth of new multilateral agreements in the areas of investment, competition, and government procurement involved a practical plan originating from a larger understanding of world economic relations, coupled with the awareness that blocking the start of negotiations for new agreements in Cancun would be jumping one hurdle in a line of several.

In closing, in a moment of economic restructuring and reorganization including forceful moves toward new legal structures benefiting only profit-makers, progressives in all quarters face the challenge of using the moment to shift the reorganizing toward new structures of economic cooperation. For socialist thinkers this includes searching-out and absorbing new and original data being exposed by NGOs, and engaging with NGO analysis and actors rather than simply criticizing them for not being adequately ‘radical’. Contrary to the ambitions of some NGOs, these new structures of economic cooperation should integrate communities in decision making processes rather than elevating NGOs to be the representatives of communities. And while NGOs can be quite effective when they specialize, knock-on official doors unexpectedly, and keep focused on carefully formulated objectives – NGOs alone cannot provide a vision of an alternative global whole. This has yet to be constructed, as we take down historic barriers of gender, race and geography-and learn to respect, listen, and be inspired by each other.

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