The Globe & Mail
Wednesday, April 29, 1998

How the Net killed the MAI

Grassroots groups used their own globalization to derail deal

by Madelaine Drohan

PARIS -- High-powered politicians had reams of statistics and analysis on why a set of international investing rules would make the world a better place.

They were no match, however, for a global band of grassroots organizations, which, with little more than computers and access to the Internet, helped derail a deal.

Indeed, international negotiations have been transformed after this week's successful rout of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) by opposition groups, which -- alarmed by the trend toward economic globalization -- used some globalization of their own to fight back.

Using the Internet's capability to broadcast information instantly worldwide, groups such as the Council of Canadians and the Malaysia-based Third World Network have been able to keep each other informed of the latest developments and supply information gleaned in one country that may prove embarrassing to a government in another.

By pooling their information they have broken through the wall of secrecy that traditionally surrounds international negotiations, forcing governments to deal with their complaints.

"We are in constant contact with our allies in other countries", said Maude Barlow, the Council of Canadians' chairwoman. "If a negotiator says something to someone over a glass of wine, we'll have it on the Internet within an hour, all over the world."

The success of that networking was clear this week when ministers from the 29 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development admitted that the global wave of protest had swamped the deal.

"This is the first successful Internet campaign by non-governmental organizations", said one diplomat involved in the negotiations. "It's been very effective."

The OECD, which represents largely the major industrial economies, yesterday halted the negotiations aimed at developing international rules for foreign investment, similar to those for trade in goods. It is unclear when, or even if, the OECD will try again.

The irony in this outcome is that the OECD, which has been an ardent advocate of globalization and has done much research into its effects, did not recognize that advocacy groups would use cyber-globalization to further their own ends.

OECD secretary-general Donald Johnston conceded that the OECD was caught flat-footed: "It's clear we needed a strategy on information, communication, and explication", he told a press conference.

The OECD's efforts to harness the Internet have not caught up in colour, content, and consumer friendliness to those of the advocacy groups.

For example, the OECD report released this week on the benefits of opening markets to trade and investment is a compilation of statistics and analysis written in language more readily understood by economists than by the average person. Instead of finding examples of real people who have benefited from globalization to help trade ministers make this case, the report repeats many of the same statistics on economic growth, investment, and the dangers of protectionism.

By comparison, hundreds of advocacy groups, in attempting to galvanize opposition to the MAI, used terms and examples that brought their message home to the public. Their sites on the Internet's Worldwide Web are colourful and easy to use, offering primers on the MAI that anyone could understand.

Canadian Trade Minister Sergio Marchi has taken the OECD to task for its poor communications effort, although he agrees some of the blame must be shared by the member governments. He said the lesson he has learned is that "civil society" -- meaning public interest groups -- should be engaged much sooner in a negotiating process, instead of governments trying to negotiate around them.

Ms. Barlow of the Council of Canadians, which says it has more than 100,000 members, called the OECD report on the benefits of globalization "pathetic". In an interview in Paris, where she was taking part in a protest against the MAI, Ms. Barlow said the immediacy of the Internet has changed the dynamics of advocacy campaigns.

She is a veteran of the campaigns against the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement and the North American free-trade agreement. The Internet was not in widespread use when those campaigns were conducted.

Today, however, advocacy groups make sure useful information ends up in the right hands right away. "If we know something that is sensitive to one government, we get it to our ally in that country instantly", she said. "I don't think governments will ever be able to do these kind of secret trade negotiations again."

For example, when the Council of Canadians got its hands on a draft version of the MAI last year, it immediately posted it on its Web site and made sure allies around the world knew it was there through E-mail correspondence.

The Internet also provides a low-cost way for groups in the Third World to get their message out and keep on top of developments. "All they need is one computer", Ms. Barlow said.

The major Internet sites of these advocacy groups provide hyperlinks to others involved in the campaign, as well as phone numbers and E-mail addresses, and often bibliographies of relevant books.

It adds up to a powerful tool that the advocacy groups are using to better effect than governments and the OECD at the moment. Ms. Barlow predicts that this advantage may not last now that the OECD members have seen its potential. "They'll be revving up their PR machines."

But so are the advocacy groups. The next stage, she said, is to start making suggestions about what should be in trade agreements, rather than just opposing what the negotiators propose.

The groups are already trading ideas on solutions, and another aspect of globalization -- the growing spread of English -- is easing their way. "Pretty well everybody speaks English", said Ms. Barlow.

"It's the universal language."

Tony Clarke, director of the Canadian Polaris Institute, stresses that anti-MAI groups such as his are not against all aspects of globalization -- their use of the Internet itself is proof of that.

"We're against this model of economic globalization", he said, referring to the MAI. "But the global village, the idea of coming together and working together, is a great dream."

Related Web sites:

The Council of Canadians

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Copyright © 1998 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.