Kevin Danaher and his wife, Medea Benjamin, are co-founders of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that was a leading force behind the campaign to force Nike out of the sweatshop business and, most recently, the drive to get what they call "fair trade" coffee into Starbucks' 2,000 stores.
Danaher, 49, became interested in international trade and lending policies when he traveled to Latin American and to Africa after college. Appalled by conditions caused by apartheid, he asked South Africans what he could do to help. "They said, 'You can go back and fix your own country,' " he said. "That's what was propping up the 14 percent white minority."
Danaher wrote his doctoral dissertation on U.S. relations with South Africa, turned it into a book, and spoke extensively during the campaign to force U.S. corporations to divest their interests in South Africa. "We forced over 200 U.S. corporations to pull out of South Africa, which was one of the most profitable markets," Danaher said. "You raise the hassle factor enough, and they bail."
Global Exchange, with almost 10,000 members, was an important player in the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and in the recent protests here in Washington during the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. While the news coverage focused on the youthfulness of the protesters, the street theater, the clashes between demonstrators and police, there is much, much more to this story.
These folks are knowledgeable, experienced and, thanks to the Internet (www.globalexchange.org), so well-wired around the globe that they can in a matter of minutes find out about a piece of multinational mischief occurring in Bolivia and bring it to the attention of their members and the public.
The IMF and the World Bank were both formed after World War II to help rebuild Europe. The IMF's initial mandate was to provide short-term loans to stabilize currency, but it has since expanded into providing long-term loans with numerous conditions attached to force borrowing countries to repay the loans. These conditions are known as structural- adjustment programs, and they require borrowers to cut subsidies for such basics as education, health care and food, to privatize state property, to raise interest rates to attract international investors, and to lower barriers against foreign ownership of the country's assets.
The World Bank makes long-term loans and historically has emphasized investments in roads, bridges, power plants, dams and industrialized agriculture, rather than social programs.
Both institutions have been criticized by economists and development specialists for years.
Danaher and Benjamin, along with colleagues in this movement, are taking the arcane world of international finance and putting it into human terms.
Benjamin, 47, who is running on the Green Party ticket for the U.S. Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), tells a story of what happened when Bechtel Corp. invested in the water supply of Cochabamba, the second-largest city in Bolivia. "The water rates quadrupled. People were out on the streets. They got shot. Marshal law was declared. We started mobilizing in the U.S. The Bolivian government backed down and severed the deal, and water is now back in the hands of the public.
"Governments can sell off [state assets] to private companies to help pay back the country's debt. They take an essential resource like water and put it in private hands, and what happens is people lose access. Providing services for poor people is not very profitable."
Benjamin believes the time is ripe for a party not beholden to corporations, such as the Green Party, to take hold in America. The protests against the international lenders and regulators have drawn in a lot of 18- to 24-year-olds, she points out, only 20 percent of whom bother to vote. "It means we are bringing in a new generation of people who will be active participants in the society."
To keep these young people excited, Benjamin says, "there's got to be a party to build. This is the time when we'll see the rise of a new social movement out on the streets, but also the rise of the Green Party on the level that it has become in Europe. People are waking up to the fact that we have billionaires on one side and 1.2 billion people living on $1 a day. It's a very socially explosive situation. We on the streets, we in the Green Party, are harbingers of a new economic system that will prevent this explosive situation."
Danaher and Benjamin speak of fair trade, in which a coffee farmer is paid a living wage, but that is a slippery term. By whose standards?
While the chants and placards called for shutting down the lending institutions, Danaher predicts that the IMF and World Bank "will be pressured to change and they will gradually introduce more and more reforms. The bottom-up globalization network will develop alternatives like fair trade coffee."
Danaher, the author of "Globalize This! The Battle against the World Trade Organization and Corporate Rule," argues that we are subordinating life to commerce rather than commerce to life. "My sense is people are fed up and they are ready for some changes at the system level."
He says that if someone told him last year that more than 10,000 protesters would be at the spring meeting of the IMF and World Bank, he would have asked him what he was smoking. The movement, clearly, is touching a nerve with young Americans who see the growing inequality between the world's richest and poorest countries reflected at home, as well. The movement is appealing to a basic sense of fairness and justice that most of us were brought up with.
The movement's bottom line is that these international trade and lending institutions ought to alleviate poverty, and not cause it. There's nothing wrong with that.