Alternative agenda

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2000, 12:00am

It seems that delegates to world economic forums will have to get used to disruption from protesters bent on violence. The mayhem in Melbourne is a repeat of scenes in Seattle, Washington and Davos, Switzerland. Presumably there will be more of the same in Prague later this month when meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are held.

There is a weary predictability to these sieges, in which the voice of informed protest is drowned out by troublemakers publicising causes that have nothing to do with trade liberalisation, or its adverse effects on the poor. That is unfortunate, because the downside of free trade cries out for attention. President Bill Clinton acknowledged as much at December's World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, when he said some groups demonstrating outside should have had a place at the summit.

All progress extracts a price. Globalisation takes a toll on societies that cannot compete against the technological superiority of developed nations. The world's economic tsars must work out a way to redress the balance and provide a safety net for the poor. But they cannot do that while the lunatic fringe derails their discussions.

Trade negotiators now say there is virtually no chance of a new round of talks starting by the year's end. That harms the Third World as well as rich nations. The free market brings more benefits than drawbacks and the lowering of trade barriers has spurred growth, jobs and better living standards in many developing countries. Computers and telecommunications have revolutionised life in every corner of the world.

But millions of people are still stricken by acute poverty, and even the much criticised investor George Soros has attacked 'market fundamentalism' for its lack of humanitarianism. The economic groupings have to reassess their goals, introduce more transparency into their workings if they seek respect. Meanwhile serious protesters with a case to argue should look for more effective ways to make their views heard. They could, for example, host an alternative summit at each location, encouraging constructive debate and inviting speakers with solutions that can generate as much news coverage as either the delegates at the official meetings or the lunatic fringe bent on disruption.