Globalisation from Below


Gary Craig, Professor of Social Justice at the University of Hull and President of the International Association for Community Development argues that we should link our community based work to questions of globalisation.

Contact address: Social Policy, University of Hull, Hull, HU6 7RX.

Globalisation is a concept which has been dominant in recent political and economic discussion. What are the implications for those practising community development, especially at the neighbourhood level?

Global communities.

The process of globalisation has been uneven (as for example between economic globalisation and political responses), contradictory and is increasingly contested. Despite the huge economic, political and social forces ranged against local communities, I would argue that globalisation does offer important opportunities for community development to respond. Indeed, it is critical that community development develops both a counter-analysis and a counter-strategy to defend the interests of local communities.

Tensions and contradictions.

There are in reality tensions and contradictions within the process of globalisation. It is not, as ‘Third Way’ spokespeople such as Western leaders Clinton, Blair, Jospin (to some degree) and Schroder assert, an inevitable, uniform and unidirectional process maintained solely by large financial and industrial corporations over which national governments can necessarily have no control. It is essentially a process of economic restructuring driven by the needs of major corporations. But this process of restructuring can be supported (or opposed) by national governments, acting alone or in coalition, and indeed by local community interests, which can also form global alliances in opposition. The electronically-driven coalitions which organised around Seattle and Prague are examples of ways in which this opposition can be developed and there will be many such international coalitions, linking local activists to global movements, in the years to come..

Global system – world poverty and environmental damage.

The growing connection between economic globalisation on the one hand and declining social standards and environmental degradation on the other, is one seed from which growing political opposition is emerging. Globalisation may be most of all an economic process but it has profound political, social and environmental implications. Politically, by challenging the power of nation states, socially by putting nations under pressure to reduce social standards, environmentally by ensuring the depletion of their natural resources on an unsustainable basis. There are therefore many terrains over which local organisations can develop campaigns of opposition; but community development needs to do so in a context which recognises the need for regional, national and international alliances, alliances which may also cut across the interests of nation states.

The economic mechanism by which globalisation has been pursued across the world by the IMF and the World Bank has characteristically taken the form of structural adjustment programmes - the requirement that local economies open up to the, usually harsh, discipline of the market and to exploitation by multinational corporations answerable to no national government and often supported by international media interests, themselves part of the interlocking international (but private) sites of economic power. Local political opposition - as we have been reminded in graphic detail during the detention of General Pinochet in the UK - has often been dealt with not by further economic pressure but by external military intervention or by threat of economic sanctions - or both. Even the heroic political gains made by the ANC in years of struggle against apartheid are being substantially undermined by the ‘reward’ of submission of the South African economy to this liberal economic discipline.

Aid ?

The promise of economic aid to disintegrating economies has, in general, reinforced the grip that western economies and large corporations have over poor and weak states in the South. But the power of western states has, in turn, increasingly been dominated, however, by that of the major industrial corporations of the world which, unanswerable to any democratic mandate, are able to cripple whole nation states - including many of the more powerful nation states - on the basis of single economic decisions which have no concern for their social consequences. As the President of Algeria recently remarked, ‘ the absolute prevalence of the financial sphere has disrupted production and favoured capital at the expense of work in third world countries ...... developing countries are excluded from consultation and collective decision-making and a new map of the world is being drawn from where a whole continent, Africa, is being erased’. He reminds us of what this new economic order means for the poor in developing countries with the fable of the ‘fox which offers the stork delicious meals on dinner plates but always puts the plates out of reach.’ Overall, the picture is clear, as the preparatory discussion for the World Recall Summit on Social Development noted last year. ‘Globalisation has led to the terms of international trade worsening for developing countries and a decline in concessionary financial resources. High debt burdens erode resources for social development and inequality within and between states is growing.’ In response, in many countries, local people are turning to locally-controlled and sustainable forms of job creation.

Localisation – a new agenda ?

At the same time, the fragmentation of nations, particularly in the former East and Central Europe but increasingly in former colonial or client states in Africa and Asia (to which particular international economic interests are not indifferent), has required that the political map continues to be redrawn. War itself may have been contained within regional boundaries but impacts at the global level on all of us. The plethora of armed conflicts across the world - many, in part at least, the consequence of imperial manipulation in earlier centuries (even if exploited by racial, religious and tribal divisions - as in central Africa , and by political expansionism - as in the Balkans) - have each brought their dreadful human consequences in terms of millions of displaced adults and children, refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, many of whom may never return to their country of birth. This fragmentation has brought a range of political, security, economic and social consequences. Within the UK, one obvious result has been the growth in the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, bringing a racist backlash within the media and in government. This provides an another important local agenda for action to confront the consequences of global processes. If community development has a concern with social inclusion, respect for diversity and human rights, we also therefore have a role in confronting the nationalist and excluding rhetoric of governments.

War (and poverty) have strong gender dimensions: when civilians are, as is often the case, the ‘main targets of warfare’ as UN Secretary General Annan has noted, ‘women bear more than their fair share of the burden’. They are particularly affected by conflicts, are the majority of the world’s refugees but are the first to build peace.’ This has been demonstrated by the powerful community work of women organising in local communities for peace in Northern Ireland. The international community development literature shows many other ways in which community and social development can make a contribution both within but also between countries, for example, to improving the quality of life of the casualties of armed conflicts, often people in the most desperate of circumstances.

World citizens ?

The notion of citizenship itself is now under severe scrutiny in many countries, particularly those with a growing multicultural population and where the (mal)distribution of income and wealth has long reflected racial distinctions to the disadvantage of minority communities. In many of the major cities of the ‘North’, the ‘black’ or minority vote is gaining political clout and may increasingly shape political responses. A further task for local community workers is to build alliances between different disadvantaged minorities to ensure that racist social and political agendas are confronted and that public policy is forced to confront the issue of structural racism.

One of the historical tasks of community development has been - and will continue to be - to support the poor, the disadvantaged in improving their social, economic and political status, and to ensure that new resources, including information technology, are exploited to their advantage. Community development has to argue for the social and economic benefits of public expenditure rather than allowing it to be portrayed as wasteful and of no economic benefit. And it has to show that there is an alternative to market mechanisms, one based on collective organisation and based on need.

At the very local level, however, the sense (and reality) of loss of economic control at a national level has, conversely, provoked alternative, very local economic responses, often set within a community development mode, responding to local needs and under local control; green currencies, local exchange and trading systems, community microcredit schemes and so on. The importance of these approaches is less in their direct impact - although that can be important as the work of the Grameen Bank and similar community-oriented financial initiatives has shown for example - than in their symbolic impact, demonstrating that there are alternative ways to organise local production, exchange and financing.

Certainty of change.

None of the changes occurring through the 1990s as a result of globalisation are in reality set in concrete; political and economic struggle continues, and this makes the year 2000 (or its equivalents in other calendars) merely a marker in a process of historical transition. As Juan Somavia, the Director General of the International Labour Office has remarked, ‘while it is true that the technical revolution driving the globalization of production and economic exchange is irreversible, there is nothing inevitable about the policies which accompany globalization, they are the result of conscious choices [choices made by governments in particular] and can be changed if we want to spread the benefits of globalization to more people’.