OK, it’s looking ever more likely that we are heading for a European double plunge recession (double dip sounds too pleasant), so here’s some thoughts from December 2008 about how to respond.
Ever since the global financial and economic meltdown broke, NGO colleagues have been debating how to respond. That debate is now focused on the G20 summit process, which started in Washington DC on 15 November and will reconvene in the UK on 2 April. In conversations with colleagues in the UK and elsewhere in recent days, a potentially useful typology emerged. Here are some options, in ascending order of commitment in terms of cash, staff and policy development:
1. Repackage what you’re doing already: a number of NGOs are reframing their existing policy and advocacy work (on aid, tax, climate change, IMF and World Bank reform) in light of the financial meltdown. This makes sense anyway, since you need to keep your messages relevant.
2. Stick to process: In any political negotiation like the unfolding series of G20 summits, there are always going to be important process issues – who’s in the room, what is published, who’s consulted, how transparent is the negotiation of statements, communiqués and commitments? NGOs have worked on this for decades in the World Bank, IMF, WTO and elsewhere, and many of the arguments are easily transferable to a new forum.
3. Highlight human impact: journalists and decision makers may not look to NGOs for their ideas on revising bond contracts or capital reserve requirements (and who can blame them…?) but they do want to hear from us about how the crisis is affecting poor people around the world. Simply ‘bearing witness’ may not slake the policy wonks’ thirst for technical detail, but it can be a serious contribution to the debate.
4. Oppose bad things: Stopping anti-development issues getting onto an agenda is often a relatively easy thing around which to rally a coalition. In the WTO Doha round, an effective developing country coalition – backed by NGOs and others – successfully blocked the EU’s efforts to force investment and other ‘new issues’ onto the Doha agenda. The EU’s insistence led to the collapse of the 2003 Cancun trade ministerial – but after that, the EU did withdraw its demands.
5. Propose new things, but get in early: Negotiating processes are more plastic in the initial stages, when new ideas can find their way onto an agenda, provided they are framed in the language and within the boundaries of the process. In the early stages of the Doha Round, developing countries and NGOs worked together within the language of the Agreement on Agriculture to argue for extra flexibility to protect crops judged particularly important to small farmers. These ‘special products’ marked an important conceptual shift in the negotiations, and become a litmus test for disagreements between the more dogmatic free traders and development advocates.
Then there’s a sixth option that could go anywhere in this list – shocks like the current financial and economic crisis challenge received wisdom and the rules of the game, and provide an opportunity to drastically change the ‘discourse’ (how I hate that word). Think how the oil shocks of the 70s triggered the rise of monetarism/collapse of Keynesianism. The current crisis has already thrown up hitherto unimaginable shifts on issues such as progressive taxation, redistribution, nationalisation, reregulation and the role of the state (for a recent example, here’s Peter Mandelson rediscovering industrial policy). Joining in the counter-hegemonic arm-wrestling can involve anything from a couple of op-eds, to generating some huge tome like From Poverty to Power, but I don’t think I’m up for another one of those (at least, not yet).