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Published on Saturday, October 21, 2000 in The Irish Times
Opening Scenes Of A New World Order
by Peadar Kirby
 
People power has made a dramatic reappearance on the world stage over recent weeks. On the streets of Palestine we see masses of people vent their anger in defiance of their own leaders. In Serbia, a people took over the streets to force out of office a dictator they had voted against.

Preceding these, however, the Prague protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the Danish vote on the euro showed a new face of people power. Where the events in Palestine and Serbia are essentially a late closing act of the Cold War era, those in Prague and in Denmark are part of the opening scenes of the new world order now emerging.

The scenes in Palestine and Serbia carry echoes of people power as it has emerged over recent decades, from the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, to the momentous events of late 1989 throughout eastern Europe. In all of these cases the opponent is obvious and visible - a hated dictator or regime, though in Palestine deep antagonisms over territory, identity and dispossession make the situation immensely more complex.

It is not an accident that the world's remaining dictators rule countries in which the state still controls much of the economy. In this regard, one thinks of Iraq, North Korea and Burma. Where economic liberalisation has dispersed economic power, as has happened throughout Latin America, the era of dictators is over.

But, economic liberalisation is fomenting other forms of popular mobilisation, as the World Bank and the IMF discovered in Prague. What were being contested there were forces greater and more global than any individual dictator or regime. At issue between the colourful protesters who took over the streets and the grey-suited delegates within the conference hall were the assumptions that underlie the forces driving and directing the emerging world order.

Central to these is the social impact of market liberalisation. For those on the streets, more economic liberalisation throughout the South, imposed and demanded by the World Bank and the IMF, has resulted in the greater poverty and marginalisation of the majority. On the other hand, those inside the conference hall believe the World Bank and the IMF are helping to spread the benefits of globalisation more fairly.

Yet, the World Bank president, Mr James Wolfensohn, did admit that many of the protesters "are asking legitimate questions" and he added: "I believe we can move forward only if we deal with each other constructively and with mutual respect."

These conciliatory words raise major questions for the huge and wealthy organisation over which Mr Wolfensohn presides. Is he acknowledging that the world's largest and most prolific producer of a vast range of reports on development is missing some of the key questions? If so, perhaps he might recruit some of the protesters to work in the bank's research department.

However, the recent experience of Prof Ravi Kanbur serves as a warning of what might befall them. A former bank staff member, Dr Kanbur was recruited to write this year's edition of the bank's flagship annual World Development Report, on the theme of "Attacking Poverty". He took to the task with energy, meeting groups of poor people around the world and inviting a vigorous email debate between bank staff and those who work with the poor.

When it came to writing the report, however, he found he was not being allowed by bank staff to give it the emphasis he believed it required. Central to the disagreement was whether empowering the poor should take precedence over liberalising markets as the principal means to address world poverty. Prof Kanbur wanted the former while bank staff demanded the latter; the bank won and Dr Kanbur resigned in protest last May.

While the World Bank president may be genuine in seeking to reach out to his critics, the seemingly arcane academic debate over the emphasis given to this year's World Development Report shows that this may be more difficult than he realises. What is at stake are the core assumptions driving world economic and social policy, namely that market forces serve the good of society. For the World Bank to question this would be akin to the Vatican questioning the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Prague protesters is to highlight the fact that the World Bank and the IMF's core beliefs are highly ideological.

While these arguments have up to now been fought out in the pages of academic journals which have been easy to dismiss by the well-paid staff of the multilateral financial institutions, now they are being fought out on the streets in the full glare of global publicity. Suddenly, the disagreement seems dramatically important.

While all this was going in Prague, the people of Denmark registered their own quiet rebuff to the same market ideology. The remarkable revolt against the agreed wisdom of their political and economic establishment seemed to be motivated also by concerns about the impact of global market forces on the cohesion and well-being of their society.

Judging by media coverage of the popular mood, it was not detailed arguments about the economic merit of adopting the euro that swayed voters but rather concerns about two elements that seem not to figure in the calculations of most economists - security and belonging. Fears that the security offered by the extensive welfare state and that the cohesion and inclusiveness of Danish society would be undermined by market forces over which Danes have no control, seemed decisive in the final reckoning.

The last two decades have seen the dominance of a narrow, individualistic economic ideology whose inspiration can be sum med up in Margaret Thatcher's classic phrase that there is no such thing as society. We are now witnessing the revolt of that society, demanding that its needs be taken into account and challenging the assumptions that giving greater freedom to market forces results in a better quality of life for all.

This is why the events in Prague and Denmark seem likely, over the longer run, to carry greater consequence than the dramas played out in Serbia or the streets of Palestine. For at last we see emerging the forces and the issues that define the contests over the type of world that will emerge in the new century. We have witnessed some very preliminary skirmishes; the major battles are still to come.

Dr Peadar Kirby lectures on the MA in International Relations at Dublin City University.

2000 ireland.com

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