World Economic Forum

Wrong targets

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 January, 2000, 12:00am

The reasons why protesters took to the snowy streets of Davos this weekend to denounce the alleged sins of economic globalisation are clear enough.

Gathered in that Swiss ski resort are some 3,000 members of the world's corporate elite, assembled for their annual ego-stroking by the World Economic Forum, perhaps the costliest non-profit foundation in existence.

For the demonstrators, these business leaders are overfed, over-rich and over-smug, guilty of damaging local societies as they seek ever more wealth from corporate invasions across national boundaries. The fact that President Bill Clinton was there to speak provided one more reason to seek publicity through violent protest.

And there is no doubt that the dash to economic interdependence creates casualties along the way. Local manufacturers often cannot compete with efficient newcomers, putting the poorly-trained out of work.

Foreign brands can dominate markets, something agitators call cultural imperialism. A 'think globally, eat locally' banner did not spare the only McDonald's in Davos from attack, despite being Swiss-owned and operated.

But, just as in Seattle when their counterparts stalled a trade conference, the protesters chose the wrong targets. Too many of them want to curtail trade, eject foreign investment and prevent free markets from developing. Their weapon is the broadaxe when a finer instrument is needed, one aimed at specific adverse effects of globalisation rather than the unstoppable trend itself.

Do these demonstrators really believe developing nations would gain by, for example, scrapping their computers, bringing back state telecommunications companies which combine outrageous prices with terrible service, or closing schools which teach modern methods? China, Indonesia and many others will not agree.

By not focusing on specific problems which can be resolved, these protesters demean their own cause. They also threaten a global trend which, if well managed, will bring great gains to nations they profess to represent - and whose interests they may well sabotage by mistake.