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Reformers, Radicals
Lock Horns At WSF

By Dionne Bunsha

The Hindu
20 January, 2004

Reformers and radicals locked horns at the World Social Forum yesterday while discussing the global economy. This debate is central to the different strands that make up the WSF.

Both agreed that the regulations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) had led to further impoverishment and insecurity for the poorest. But they had different opinions on alternatives to the economic domination of a few powerful countries.

Some like Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist, believe that the current system can be made more humane. Others like Walden Bello, Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines, feel that the only way to a more equitable economy is to derail these institutions controlled by the most powerful nations of the world.

"The current form of globalisation being imposed by the IMF has led to greater insecurity," Mr. Stiglitz said. "By insisting on the free flow of capital and the privatisation of social security, the IMF has exposed people, especially the aged and the poor, to greater insecurity. Unemployment has also increased, leading to greater violence." But, insecurity was not an inherent part of globalisation, Mr. Stiglitz said. East Asian countries used access to international exports and technology to reduce poverty. It was only when they adopted capital liberalisation that their economy became more volatile and vulnerable. The current form of globalisation was based on market fundamentalism, a simplistic belief in markets based on unreal assumptions of the economy, he said.

"I support the WTO. Some rule of law is better than none. If not for this, the U.S. would have gotten away with a lot worse," he said. But Prabhat Patnaik, economics professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University, disagreed. "In the current situation, we cannot have a fair globalisation. The unequal distribution of power in the world doesn't make it possible."

George Monbiot, British writer and activist, insisted that institutions like the IMF and the World Bank were "un-reformable." "Their constitutions are totally controlled by the Western world. They give the U.S. 17 per cent of the vote in the IMF and 18 per cent of the vote in the World Bank. There can be no reform within their structures," he said. Suggesting ways in which poor countries can defy Western nations, Mr. Monbiot said, "Debt is a source of power for poor nations. They can collectively refuse to repay their debts. That will threaten the existence of powerful institutions."

Class conflict rather than "civil society" movements can force change, said Brazilian economist Laura Tavares Soares. She said terms like "civil society" were being used to undermine the fact that there was still class conflict in poor countries with vast inequalities.