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Apartheid at the World Summit

What did the 2002 World Summit reveal about Indonesia’s global future?

June 15, 2002

What did the 2002 World Summit reveal about Indonesia's global future?

Even though the protestors haven’t changed the world, in some quarters their message has been heard. There have been countless “post-Seattle” conferences — and even some soul-searching at the World Bank and beyond.

In the past few years, activists disrupted WTO and World Bank meetings to force leaders to turn their attention toward long-neglected problems.

But at this conference, there was little sign that those demonstrations have made a difference. Instead, there was backlash.

In an increasingly familiar pattern, non-profit groups and concerned citizens were undeniably marginalized. The threat of less-than-polite behavior à la Seattle and Genoa apparently raised the suspicions of conference organizers. A bunker mentality prevailed.

Throngs of police lined the access roads to the negotiating rooms here. By the time the ministers showed up in the second week, you could virtually find your way to the meeting’s nerve center by following the increasingly dense numbers of the cudgel-wielding forces. Of course, such a security presence is now standard for international meetings.

And yet, I wonder, for a World Summit dedicated to aiding the downtrodden, the show of force seemed particularly incongruous. After all, wasn’t this event every activist’s home turf — an opportunity to tackle the long-neglected problems that public interest groups routinely toil with?

Apparently not. Activists complained that they had little access to the delegates, and almost no influence over the process. Negotiating sessions were closed, their site was off-limits — and heavily guarded.

Civil society participants confessed that they hardly knew what was going on in the official meetings. In the second week, a highly anticipated open meeting between delegates and activists was inexplicably canceled.

At the same time, the United Nations hardly went out of its way to illustrate utopian democracy to the gathered dignitaries, many of whom came from similarly closed governments.

For example, the world body issued press credentials only to private and state-owned media — in other words, the mainstream. Non-profit, foundation-supported publications did not officially qualify.

As a result, distrust ran high. Some attendees gave Indonesia’s nascent democracy high marks for allowing hundreds of local activists to gather, which probably would not have happened prior to the 1998 fall of the country’s long-reigning dictator, President Suharto.

But many said that Bali — and more specifically the posh, sprawling five-star resort of Nusa Dua — was chosen in part because of it is inaccessibility to the masses.

Nusa Dua is a gated beach paradise: a Mecca of rolling lawns and meandering swimming pools, an exclusive spot for sunburned “haves” who stroll about in skimpy outfits considered scandalous by most citizens of this archipelago.

Aside from the activists — some of whom sat in the corner of a meeting room and ate rice from banana leaves — the only “have-nots” to be seen here had a mop or tray in hand.

Any would-be rabble-rousers from the capital had to spend a month’s salary on a plane ticket — or make an almost equally pricey two-day train and ferry journey. Just eating a modest meal here can easily cost more than many locals earn in a week.

At any such meetings, attendees are likely to find an expo where concerned groups can set up booths and hawk their ideas. Yet in Bali, there were two: one of the haves — and another for the have-nots.

At a prime location near the resort’s stores and restaurants — one of the few places that official delegates were almost certain to visit — was a white tent the size of a large gymnasium.

There, representatives of corporations, ministries, the World Bank and a smattering of rich NGOs pumped hands and conversed with delegates in climate-controlled comfort, over the din of a mammoth air conditioning unit.

The over-abiding message in the A/C tent was that Indonesia is open for business — so much so that the expo made Indonesia seem somewhat desperate, as if it were willing to offer its natural resources at fire-sale prices.

The representative of one city government offered this journalist a bonus for favorable coverage that might bring foreign investors.

Rio Tinto was there, as was Newmont Mining, both touting their sustainability pledges. Both, rightly or wrongly, are considered pariahs by local NGOs. But there was no reason to worry — there were no activists at this expo.

Meanwhile, in a barren, sun-scorched lot near the beach but near nothing else, in hastily constructed thatched shacks were the have nots: NGOs who weren’t wealthy enough to afford a spot in the A/C tent.

There, napping activists languished as their exhibits withered in the heat. Few people found the NGOs in this hidden backwater. Any gray-suited delegates who strayed this far from the climate control risked melting if they lingered too long.

Activists in Bali are concerned that a similar, UN-orchestrated apartheid will separate the classes at the World Summit in August.

Their fears are well-founded. A number of the activities in Johannesburg will be shunted to a site 35 minutes by bus from the heart of the meetings.

Some UN officials are apparently aware that they have created a bubble of safety for the jet-setting negotiators.

UN Development Program Administrator Mark Malloch-Brown commented that “These global summits have become like great beached whales,” where it is difficult to connect a conference with any tangible impact.

Sure enough, they have come up with a solution: a “virtual exhibition” that will use an internet-type connection to introduce delegates to flesh-and-blood poor people from around the world — and demonstrate projects under way to help them.

The UN says that the link, which will allow two-way communications between Johannesburg and disadvantaged outposts, are “intended to bring a healthy dose of real-world conditions to the Summit participants.”

And of course a virtual expo has a big advantage over real representatives of civil society or the poor: delegates will be safe from any awkward encounters with the downtrodden they are supposedly helping.