Opinion 2

Beyond the Barricades

In the face of increasing polarisation, with each side demonizing the other, who carries the cost?
Len Abrams

I have featured two documents in The Water Page recently. These are "The River Keepers’ Handbook" produced by the International Rivers Network, (written by Lori Pottinger) and "Blue Gold" produced by the International Forum on Globalization (written by Maude Barlow). Although I do not agree with everything in the documents, they are well reasoned and well written. They highlight very important issues which have to be addressed. From the documents, however, one gets the impressionthat the staff of the World Bank and IMF are a bunch of fat cats sitting on loads of money with the blood of the Third World poor dripping from their hands and intent on destroying the planet. Conversely, from what I know from inside the World Bank, one would think that organisations like the International Rivers Network are staffed by a bunch of fanatical ideologues who object to absolutely everything but are short on legitimacy and alternatives.

Both sides in the recent confrontations in Washington DC during the World Bank and IMF Spring Meetings claimed "victory" - one that the meetings were disrupted and that their presence was definitely felt, and the other that the meetings went ahead. Doubtless we need to raise our sights and define "victory" in terms of higher objectives. The concern is that as the two sides become increasingly polarised and estranged from each other, we lose sight of reason. At the end of the day it matters less who scores the most points, who occupies the supposed "moral high ground". What matters is fundamental transformation "on the ground".

NGOs and activists have a critical function to perform in society. They are the bell-ringers, the town-criers of the 21st century. Their role is to call those who seek to govern to account for their activities, to curb the excesses of profiteers and to be the voice of the voiceless. Dissent and the freedom to express it are central to democracy. The problem arises, however, when they cease to be a means to an end and begin to be an end in themselves. As they call others to account, to whom are they accountable? The question is, if they do not perform their watchdog functions adequately, who else will? If they chase after straw dogs and claim trivial victories, who will bring the real problems to the attention of society? If they are consumed by their own internal agendas and dogma, who will legitimately raise the voice of the voiceless?

Don't get me wrong - I come from an NGO/activist background myself. I know what it is to stand at the barricades, to be tear-gassed etc. I know the fear and the rush. I also know the temptation to add each protest to your collection of brownie points and noddy badges - "I was there" is very seductive.

The point, of course, is that we cannot deny the effectiveness of such protests in raising issues. Whether they contribute towards the solution of problems, however, is to be questioned. I think more often than not they provide an excuse to shoot the messenger and ignore the message. In fact the message itself is often the casualty, creating resistance to change and a mutual demonisation, each party of the other. That the situation exists that people feel that they have to resort to such tactics is surely an indictment on the "establishment". The irony is that those who occupy the extremes on both sides are very similar. Intolerant and entirely dismissive of the other side, they are unable to acknowledge any other reality than that dictated by their own world view.


I know from personal experience that there are good people on both sides. Sharp people who have incisive but different critiques of the situation and who are deeply personally committed. For the sake of the hungry and the planet we need to get beyond the barricades and engage in a real dialogue. Would that there was some higher authority which could bang our collective heads together and say "LISTEN TO EACH OTHER!"

Because who will be the losers in the end but the poor and the planet, yet again…..