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Op-Ed: Protestors’ success not defined by turnout

Every time I attend anti-corporate globalization protests, like the upcoming events this weekend at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund meetings, I meet people who tell me to stop wasting my time. Cynics ask what all the screaming, yelling, blockading and puppet-making actually accomplishes, especially considering the dwindling turnout at rallies.

My answer is that observers cannot judge the success of anti-globalization protesters by the size of their turnout, but rather by the overall results of their efforts. The media will, however, only focus on how small these protests have become since September 11. They will pronounce that this movement is not as deep-rooted and widespread as once believed.

When the IMF/World Bank turnout disappoints this week (because it will not reach the heights of Quebec City, Seattle or Genoa), the media will label the movement as irrelevant and focus on its failure. They will declare victory for unfettered capitalism and say these “radical” kids found something better to do with their time.

Rather than answer the question of whether or not the movement is shrinking, it is important to examine the question of what changes have actually transpired that can, at least in part, be attributed to these demonstrations. This refutes arguments declaring the movement’s demise and shines light on some of its many domestic and international successes.

The notorious Seattle protests that disrupted and successfully shut down the World Trade Organization’s meetings in November 1999 brought international attention to a movement that had been growing ever since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1996.

One of the most dramatic results of this 50,000-person demonstration was what was called the “teamsters and turtles” phenomenon, which continues to grow. This protest was the first time in years that such huge numbers of activists organized in unison with the labor movement in the United States. While you will not see the labor movement out in big numbers this weekend, Seattle was the catalyst for a new coalition that has brought the labor movement and various activist groups together for major campaigns. The informal coalition nearly succeeded in stopping Congress from giving Bush fast-track authority this past summer. They are also fighting for widespread access to prescription drugs and coordinating major efforts to stop the expansion of the NAFTA agreement though the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

In addition to labor’s involvement, many youth have become political activists through these anti-globalization protests. Important issues like fighting local privatization, working in solidarity with those trying to form unions or forming unions themselves, struggling for local living-wage laws and securing affordable housing and local environmental problems are being tackled by new activists inspired by the anti-globalization movement. Thus, it is impossible to measure the success of these protests by merely asking how many people decided to show up to a given protest. It is far more important to look at the local and international work these activists do between these large-scale protests, which arguably is where the real change is made.

Many important changes have taken place within these global institutions themselves as a direct result of protest groups. Young activists won a major concession from the World Bank and the IMF following last year’s annual protests. In the past, most structural adjustment programs required user fees for schools, making it extremely expensive to attend school in many countries and making education largely inaccessible to women. Due in large part to these students’ demands and those of Non-Government Organizations, these institutions made it an official policy to prevent such user fees. Consequently, many more women are able to afford the opportunity of attending schools, as exemplified in Tanzania, where 20,000 more women are now attending schools. While modest, this is only one of many examples of changes inspired by demonstrators.

Arguably, the anti-globalization movement’s biggest victory is the increased public scrutiny of global organizations, which affect millions of people and, for many years, operated under the radar of mainstream society. They are now being held accountable for transgressions.

Prior to Seattle, very little public attention focused on the role these institutions played in the developing world and in our global society. It is because of the protesters that acronyms like the WTO, FTAA and IMF are well known and now being studied and debated in schools. It is because of the protesters that these organizations are part of a global discourse and addressed by our governmental leaders and civic groups. This alone, whether the protests themselves are considered successful or not, is the greatest success of the movement.

-The writer is a graduate student
in the School of Political Management.

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