G20, Great Show

By Fazila Farouk · 29 Sep 2009

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Picture: Cacioman
Picture: Cacioman

How charming it’s been to see photographs of the “Obama’s looking cute” waiting for their guests to arrive at the G20 dinner in Pittsburgh. We are told that the leaders of the world’s strongest economies dined on organic food, giving the nod to Michelle Obama’s organic food garden at the White House and also connecting the summit to the principle of sustainability.

First lady Obama played the part of hostess with aplomb, as she shepherded the presidential wives through the G20 spouses' programme, which included a visit to Heinz (tomato sauce) heiress, Teresa Heinz Kerry’s farm for a gastronomic treat (organic, of course), a performance by world-class cellist Yoyo Ma and a tour of the Andy Warhol museum, where Carla Bruni-Sarkozy looked breathtaking in a demure black dress

The only blemish on Mrs Obama’s programme being the conspicuous absence of presidential husbands; both German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband and Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s husband skipped the summit. A tragic reminder that despite our advanced modern age, gender dynamics still affect even the most privileged among us.

Regardless, it was a wonderfully refined affair. Every effort was made not to be ostentatious. The hosts were careful to project an appropriately modest image to the less privileged amongst us in these times of economic strife.

And while Michelle Obama graciously entertained the G20 wives, Barack Obama steered their husbands and the two women heads of states closer to collaboration and consensus on issues of global importance -- the economic meltdown, climate change, international trade and reform of multi-lateral institutions. 

Amidst carefully composed quid pro quos, the summit leaders declared the meeting a success. The Pittsburgh gathering culminated in a communiqué, which brought G20 countries closer together. There is to be greater accountability and solidarity amongst the world’s top twenty economies. They will replace the G8 as the premiere world platform guiding global economic development.

G20 world leaders claim that our darkest hour has passed and that their measures will ease our burdens. We applaud, if a little nervously, as we survey the chaos and confusion in the vast wastelands of financial ruin and human strife outside the cocoon of the G20’s beautifully choreographed theatre of cultured civility.

But behind this theatre of elegantly contrived concern lurked another reality in Pittsburgh, mostly hidden from our view. 

We were offered glimpses of it when “violent mobs” collided with the civilized summit of the political elites. More than 3,000 police officers descended on Pittsburgh to protect the G20 leaders from the rampaging mobs.

There was, of course, some empathy for their cause, but the stereotypical caricature prevailed. The protestors were an angry mob of emotionally charged agitators who could not be allowed to disrupt the level-headed logic of the politicians’ summit. 

It was a misrepresentation of mammoth proportions. The protestors were not crazed fanatics. They were ordinary people worried about themselves, their families, friends and neighbours losing jobs and homes. They empathised with many others in similar and worse positions in other parts of the world. 

They came in large numbers: academics, activists, unionists, religious leaders, workers, the unemployed, the underemployed, the homeless and even middle class moms. But the spotlight refused to focus on the sanity of their causes. Instead it demonised them and trivialised their messages.

Cheryl LaBash, a retired municipal worker involved in the campaign ‘Bail Out the People’, had the following to say about the security paranoia and over the top police presence around her, "I'm 60 years old. I'm retired and I own a house. We're not scary. You may not agree with us always, but it's not the way it has been played up." 

LaBash assisted campers in a tent city, where tented accommodation was set up for protestors in a show of solidarity with thousands of other Americans, now forced to live in similar tent cities throughout the country because they lost their homes in Wall Street’s sub-prime mortgage scam. Documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore tells us that a mortgage foreclosure is filed every 7,5 seconds in present-day America.

A common misconception about the G20 activists is that their rallies were only about protests on the streets. Indeed, marches were planned, but far more important were the many alternative discussion forums organised by academics and others in the days before the official G20 meeting started. 

The People’s Summit took place over a four-day period, ending just before the official G20 meeting got going. It responded to issues that the world leaders largely overlooked in their discussions.

These included topics such as health as a human right; rebuilding devastated poor communities; immigrants’ rights; the influence of corporations on politics; globalisation and many other issues that the ordinary people who went to Pittsburgh thought were far more pressing.

Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, spoke at the Monumental Baptist Church in Pittsburgh on 23 September 09, in an event organised by the “People’s Voices” project.

He anticipated the phasing out of the G8, but was sceptical about the G20 being the appropriate platform for the entire world’s economic development.

Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, was very clear that decisions taken by the G20 affect the entire world. “What is true is that what goes on behind those closed doors (of the G20 Summit) will affect the lives of all of us all over the world,” he said. He cautioned that citizens of the 170-odd countries who are not part of the G20 feel strongly about the fact that “decisions are being made about their future in which they have no voice.”

Stiglitz chose South Africa to demonstrate the inadequacy of the G20. South Africa is the only country representing Sub-Saharan Africa in the G20, but is “very different” to other countries in the region, he said, highlighting a fundamental flaw that weakens the case of excluded developing countries.

This is not withstanding the fact that the G20 completely undermines the role of the United Nations (UN). Stiglitz has in fact headed a UN commission that proposed establishing a ”Global Economic Coordinating Council” to guide the world’s economic development through a forum that operates on far more democratic principles of accountability than the G20.

Stiglitz was stinging in his criticism of the global financial system, calling it “dysfunctional.” It tries to “exploit every aspect of our society,” he contended and further referred to the system of global capitalism that we have as, “ersatz capitalism, where you socialise losses and privatise gains.”

There were many other eminent speakers at the various alternative forums taking place around the G20. But their voices were muted by a system that chose to portray them and their followers as menaces to society, when really, quite the opposite is the case.

The Pittsburgh G20 Summit ended with its leaders tinkering on the fringes of global financial reform while insulting our planet with token climate change pledges. 

Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that many among us remain captivated by the poised performances of the world’s most powerful politicians and their glamorous wives who feed our unending appetite for celebrity voyeurism.

They put on a great show and we simply get sucked into their elite vision for global social justice, if they can conceive of such a thing.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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