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Czech Republic: Forum 2000 Attendees Face Off Over Globalization

Fans and critics of globalization came together over the weekend in Prague for the latest Forum 2000 conference organized by Czech President Vaclav Havel. The "Bridging Global Gaps" conference produced some lively exchanges, but delegates did manage to agree on some things, like a wish-list for how big corporations could improve their behavior.

Prague, 21 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- What can be done to alleviate the debt burden of the world's poorest countries while at the same time ensuring creditors are treated fairly? How can large corporations be enlisted to help protect the environment and communities around the world?

These were some of the questions under discussion at the latest Forum 2000 conference held over the weekend in Prague.

The meeting brought together fans of globalization and their critics from the ranks of nongovernmental organizations. Previous Forum 2000 conferences have been thoughtful, if sedate, affairs. This time around, organizers were hoping the strategy of bringing together opposing groups would make for a livelier debate.

And it did produce some sharp exchanges, like this one between American economists Jeffrey Sachs and Hilton Root. They're arguing over what Sachs says is America's poor record on aid contributions to developing countries.

Sachs: "The current estimate is that the war in Iraq will cost $100 billion for the U.S. I don't say 'would' or 'might,' I say 'will' because we're going to war, unfortunately. And the third point...."

Root: "Can I just say something? Those moneys come from different piles."

Sachs: "No, they don't come from different piles, they come from the income of the United States. You provoke me to name...."

Root: "OK, but...."

Sachs: "You provoke me to name a fourth number also, but let me just finish. The third number I'd like to mention is the U.S. contribution to the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria this year. It's $200 million. Do you know what that means? It would be 2 cents out of every $1,000 of U.S. income."

Root, who recently served in the U.S. Treasury Department, was alone among his panelists in defending the United States. The Forum 2000 audience appeared to be side with his opponents as well.

Root: "The United States Department of the Treasury has no access to the money that is spent by the military or on defense, so there is no way that you can say we're going to have one aircraft carrier less but then that additional savings is going to go to the World Bank or the IMF [International Monetary Fund] or any of these causes that you're saying."

Sachs: "If the president of the United States gave [a fraction of the number of] speeches about this as he does about Iraq, we'd actually get there. (Applause)"

For some delegates, the "Bridging Global Gaps" conference skirted some fundamental issues. Ricardo Navarro, the chairman of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said the discussion was akin to shopping for new doors and windows while your house is collapsing. He cited as one example the question of trade: "Many countries in the south, they are suffering hunger. And the same countries are exporting agricultural production. Why? Because they export what they can sell. So trade -- it's true that there are imbalances. But we have to check, do we really need more trade?"

Still, delegates did manage to find some common ground. One group brought together men and women from civil society and the world of business to discuss that great bugbear of antiglobalists: multinational corporations.

Marc Sarkady is an adviser to Global Compact, a United Nations program that encourages corporate responsibility: "All of us agreed that corporations over the last 25 years have acquired a level of power beyond the moderating influence of national sovereignty, and that this new level of power requires new approaches to the problems of accountability, transparency, and dealing with environmental and social issues that have been created."

Most of the group's participants agreed on a number of recommendations. Among their proposals: Company campaign contributions should be banned. Those that generate a lot of waste should be taxed more heavily. And corporations -- including their senior executives -- should be liable for environmental and social damages tied to their activities.

To be sure, these are only recommendations. Forum 2000 may generate good ideas, but it has no real power to change global policy. As many delegates noted, the problem of Third World debt has been around for years and progress has been glacial.

But Frederik Willem De Klerk, the former South African president who has become a Forum 2000 regular, said at least it's a beginning: "[I hope] it will cause positive constructive ripples to go out from this conference, also to our various constituencies, that the time has come to find and build common approaches to resolve the misery and the [destitution] and the suffering of almost one-third of the total world population."

De Klerk says he hopes there will be another meeting next year.