Collective campaigns: the shape of things to come

March 01, 2005

Collective campaigns: the shape of things to come

March 01 2005

by Briefing Staff

Briefing finds campaigners are beginning to see the benefits of speaking with a collective voice in the fight for column inches

The World Social Forum (WSF) defies neat summaries. The 100,000 or more social, political and environmental activists who left the five-day jamboree on the last day of January did so without a formal agreement or declaration from the proceedings.

In contrast to last year’s event in Mumbai, India, the organisers of the fifth WSF opted for smaller, more disparate sessions and few, if any, high profile speakers. Networking, dialogue and information sharing were the order of the day this year.

In addition to attending the 2,000 workshops and discussion events, the large campaign organisations and development agencies now see the WSF as a key date to get together and strategise for the year ahead. These discussions continue to be dominated by the international political agenda, evidence that governments remain the primary target of campaigning efforts.

For 2005, the flashpoints for campaign action will be the multilateral meetings of the G8 in Gleneagles, Scotland, on July 1, the UN Millennium Summit in New York on September 10 and the World Trade Organisation ministerial in Hong Kong this December.

Despite the lack of official consensus, what was striking at the WSF was the acknowledgement by key players in the campaign community that they must work together if they are to effect change.

The Global Call Against Poverty (GCAP), launched on January 27 is just one example of such collaboration. Other notable cases include the global anti-WTO campaign ‘Our World Is Not For Sale’ [], the UK’s Coalition for Corporate Responsibility [] and the Latin American local rights groups, Via Campesina and Red Vida. Many WSF delegates also cite recent collective campaigns against Union Carbide, Suez and Coca-Cola as the shape of things to come.

The shift towards greater collaboration is in part a feature of political realism. In the fight for column inches, campaign groups are beginning to see the benefits of speaking with a collective voice.

Another emerging factor is the growing awareness among campaign and policy leaders of the connections between their causes.

“It is clear how violations of environment laws lead to widespread violations of economic, social and environmental rights”, a spokesperson for Amnesty International told Briefing. “In the case of Bhopal, this meant violation of the right to water because of the contamination, violation of the right to health, violation of the right to housing because the communities have now been dislocated.”

A practical example of such cooperation in practice was provided by a march in Porto Alegre on Saturday against Monsanto’s promotion of genetically engineered soybeans in Brazil and Argentina. While Greenpeace was out in force, as might be expected, making their case on the environmental impacts of genetically modified crops, they were also joined by small farmer groups, forestry campaigners, land rights protestors and anti-poverty organizations.

“Monsanto is known internationally for being a huge transnational that is clearly profiting at the cost of public health. That’s why you can see such a huge diversity of people turning out today to tell them to stop”, said Bryan Hirsch, campaign coordinator with the US non-profit Corporate Accountability International [].

Daniel Mittler, Greenpeace’s political adviser argues the point even more strongly. “The action against Monsanto goes beyond just showing how social and environmental issues are linked. It proves how the social and environmental movements can move towards collective action”, he told Briefing.

Trade unions and consumer groups joined the development agency ActionAid to protest against Parmalat’s purchase of local milk co-operatives in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande de Su . The troubled Italian conglomerate is charged with buying local milk co-operatives and subsequently pushing up prices and forcing local producers out of business.

Organisations like the Polaris Institute, a Canadian non-profit [] are working to facilitate such networking among activist groups. By providing research on the structures and impacts of large companies, the group hopes that disparate groups campaigning against the same brands will forge a common cause.

One new area that campaigners hope will find resonance across different spheres of the activist community is transfer pricing, offshore tax havens and other tax issues.

“The same companies that many campaigners are going after because of what they do on the environment or how they treat their workers are also cheating on their home countries and the countries where they do business”, says Lucy Komisar of the Tax Justice Network [], who predicts that tax evasion is the one issue that will mobilise the middle classes towards public activism.

All is not communal-hugs in the campaign world, however. Differences of ideology and approaches to activism continue to divide civil ociety groups.

The difficulties of creating a joint solidarity movement can be seem most clearly in the trade union movement, where the trend towards the outsourcing of jobs has led to entrenched conflict between workers’ groups in industrialised and industrialising countries.

Still, the majority of representatives at WSF are in agreement about the primary goals of economic and anti-corporate activism; namely, the re-balancing of power within today’s trading system and the increased accountability of private companies.

As one contributor put it in a session on the penultimate day, entitled ‘Towards the Destruction of Neo-Liberal Capitalism’, “We are in the age of post-issue activism. We don’t want to return to single action. What we need now is widespread international campaigns that changes the ground rules of how large companies operate.”

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 80 – March, 2005