On International NGO Cooperation: A View from the American Grassroots

Human Rights Dialogue 1.11 (Summer 1998) "Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia"

June 5, 1998

I accepted the invitation to attend this conference because the problems it addresses—housing, the environment, and foreign workers—are not unique to any one nation, and actions taken in the United States often have an impact on life in other countries. I wanted to hear directly from Asians about the nature and severity of these problems, because the best way to learn about living conditions anywhere is to hear from local residents about the problems they face. I discovered through this conference that a great many of the political and social concerns of Asians are shared by Americans like myself, who work diligently at the grassroots level to see that the government and corporations address the needs of low- to-moderate-income communities.

I looked forward to sharing stories of effective organizing strategies from my 20 years’ experience. But, more important, I looked forward to the responses of my colleagues from Asia and hoped that together we could develop some strategies for getting governments and corporations to look at factors other than pure dollars and cents when making decisions about what to produce, how to produce it, and where to sell it, or what to build, where to build it, and what health and safety measures to incorporate.

I was not disappointed. In fact, I found that the experiences of the grassroots environmental movement in the United States mirrors the experiences of grassroots activists in Asia, with one important difference. Corporations and governments in the United States may give activists more freedom to assemble, to create nonprofit corporations, and to participate publicly in decision-making processes without fear of repercussions. But when it comes to making decisions that affect our lives fundamentally, we run into the same concentration of power that suppresses real democracy in Asia.

For example, we have been waiting for the final Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on the dangers of dioxin since release of the agency’s Draft Reassessment in September 1994. That report indicated that the average person in the United States was at or near saturation point for the levels of dioxin in our bodies that could cause negative health effects. The report also showed that garbage incinerators and medical-waste incinerators were the two primary sources of dioxin in our environment. The final release of this document has been held up by ongoing debate between industry scientists and government scientists; and as long as this is a draft document, no action will be taken to curb levels of dioxin in our environment—something that ought to have been done years ago. We are so close, and yet so far away: the EPA’s acknowledgment that a serious problem exists is a vindication of the work of many NGOs; these same NGOs have been clamoring for a final document to be released and policies adopted that reflect a “crisis” situation; and yet, these actions have been delayed because of undue pressure from corporations concerned about the impact these conclusions will have on their bottom line.

It is clear to grassroots activists in the United States that transnational corporations are threatening to grab so much political power that issues of social justice, the health of communities, incomes, and jobs will become impossible to address. It is also clear that while we have the right to raise our voices in opposition to these actions, many times we get too close to the nerve centers of power. Then the door is shut in our faces and democracy gets ignored.

It is frightening to hear of the long reach of these transnationals, how they are affecting the goals and aspirations of people throughout the world—even people with the rich cultural and historical traditions of Asia. At the same time, it is encouraging to know that there are people throughout the world who are working day in and day out to try to create an alternative political process and to curb the power of these transnational corporations. If we in the United States do not realize that we have to deal with these companies in our own country as well as overseas, and that we are still not strong enough as NGOs to control their actions, then we are doing a disservice to ourselves as well as to people throughout the world.

This is particularly important in light of our experience with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was bitterly opposed by grassroots environmental groups, labor groups, and others in the United States. These groups worked very hard to prevent passage of NAFTA, because of their concerns about the impact the “liberalization of trade” would have on health, safety, and labor standards. They came very close to preventing the agreement from passing, but fell short at the last moment. However, experiences in the United States, Canada, and Mexico since NAFTA was implemented have shown that the critics were right: environmental conditions have not improved in and around the maquiladoras, economic conditions have barely improved in Mexico, and many jobs have been lost throughout the United States as companies move to Mexico or Canada and other companies lay off hundreds of workers. At the same time, hostility toward immigrants in the United States has increased.

There are now several measures pending in the United States to further “liberalize” trade throughout the world—proposals involving the International Monetary Fund and a series of agreements called the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. In so many ways, these proposals will extend the consequences of present-day initiatives to globalize the world; without an understanding of both the conditions and the needs of people on the other side of the world, it is easier, though no less malevolent, to be indifferent to the real impact of these agreements.

In a world where communication is much easier than it has ever been, it is incumbent upon us to use these new communication methods to bring grassroots groups together. It will increase our ability to work for a world that is intolerant of disparities in income, environmental racism and injustice, overdevelopment and destruction of the world’s most valuable resources, the erosion of democratic rights, and the lack of respect for cultures and traditions.

It is also critical that as a nation we adopt the same philosophy that grassroots environmental groups adopted a long time ago: No one community’s solution should become another community’s problem. That means that if garbage incinerators or certain pesticides fall out of favor in this country, it should be unacceptable for the manufacturers or operators to peddle these polluting technologies anywhere else around the world. Already we see incinerator companies, having exhausted opportunities in the United States because of the nature and cost of their business, trying to construct incinerators in less developed countries. Instead, we should all be promoting sustainable technologies that do not pollute our air, water, and soil or threaten public health, but rather that conserve the world’s resources. Our discussion group on the environment identified the development of protocols for analyzing and evaluating technology transfers as a fertile area for cooperation between Asian and American NGOs.

I applaud this effort to bring together grassroots activists from Asia and the United States and would implore others to realize that we have as much to learn from people throughout the world as they have to learn from us. It is essential that as Americans we do our part to curb the power and arrogance of transnational corporations, because we, too, are victimized by the steady erosion of our democratic rights. We should also pledge to continue the dialogue among grassroots groups initiated by this conference, so that together we can overcome ongoing attempts by transnationals to set a corporate agenda, instead of a social agenda.