Corporate Nightmare In Seattle?
Source Steve Zeltzer
Date 99/11/06/23:50

Business Week - November 8, 1999


DANGER: Activists have given free trade a rotten rep--and
if governments and business don't get busy, it's going to
get even worse.

By Jeffrey E. Garten

In late November, Seattle is likely to be the scene of a
big test for global capitalism. That's when more than
1,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are planning
to disrupt the kickoff of a new round of global trade
negotiations. The NGOs' collective claim is that
unfettered commerce hurts workers, consumers, and the
environment, and that it is being propelled by an
arrogant World Trade Organization unaccountable to
ordinary citizens. With the very real possibility that
the trade talks will be derailed, the question is whether
the strategy of Washington and the business community is
as lame as it looks.

Of course, not all NGOs have a political agenda and many,
such as the Red Cross or the International Rescue
Committee, provide unique critical services. But the
gathering in Seattle will be dominated by NGOs that take
strong public-policy stands, such as Human Rights Watch,
United Students Against Sweatshops, and the Sierra Club.
While these organizations are supporting important
causes, their public-spirited missions shouldn't obscure
their intention to retard the momentum for a more open
world economy --the best hope, even with its flaws, for
a better life for billions of people.

JOINING FORCES. Today's NGOs are not the ragtag
protesters of the 1960s. They are well-organized and
amply funded and have become a powerful new force on the
global scene. They have skillfully exploited the void
between shrinking governments unable to cushion the
impact of change on ordinary citizens and multinational
companies that are the agents of that change. They have
gained influence by joining forces across borders,
aggregating power under broad umbrella groups such as
Consumers International, and building alliances with
unions such as the AFL-CIO. They have harnessed the
Internet to build huge global coalitions and to
coordinate lobbying in multiple capitals. While
governments and chief executives bore the public and the
media with sterile abstractions about free markets, NGOs
are sending more nuanced messages sensitive to the
anxieties of local communities around the world. At the
same time, they are preparing sophisticated strategies to
influence television networks, newspapers, and magazines.

There is plenty of evidence of NGOs' growing clout. In
recent years, they have changed the policies of global
corporations such as Nike (over treatment of workers
abroad), Monsanto (over genetically engineered products),
and Royal Dutch Shell (over environmental issues). In
1997 more than 600 NGOs, representing 70 countries,
caused the collapse of international governmental
negotiations to create global rules for foreign

If Washington and Corporate America don't move
decisively, NGOs could dominate public opinion on global
trade and finance. In the first instance, government
officials and business leaders should mount a much better
campaign to explain the benefits of globalization. They
should also promote more effective policies to help
people adjust to changing trade patterns--such as
education, professional training, and portable health and
pension benefits. Third, the Administration should also
apply intense pressure to the WTO to make its goals and
its work more visible and understandable to people around
the world, and to open up effective channels of
communications to public interest groups everywhere.

Beyond that, Washington and business should challenge the
NGO community to practice what they preach. Every
organization that calls itself an NGO shouldn't be
granted a free ride to influence. Governments and
business associations should demand that NGOs part the
curtain on their own activities--including disclosing
exactly who their members are and how they are financed.
The media should be continually prompted to scrutinize
the accuracy of the facts that underlie NGOs' arguments
against globalization. They should treat the situation as
if it were a hotly contested long-term political campaign
for public opinion--which it is.

NGOs can play an indispensable role in bridging the
responsibilities of the public and private sectors. But
if they are allowed to hijack the WTO talks, it will be
a dangerous precedent that every government and every
global company will regret long after the protests in
Seattle. It's important to broadcast the message that a
global market economy can promote not only growth but
individual freedom as well a cleaner environment. Warning
for President Bill Clinton, the Business Round Table, and
their counterparts in Europe and Japan: There is less
than a month to get your act together. You are already in
deep trouble.

Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, was Under
Secretary of Commerce for International Trade in the
first Clinton administration.

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