Searching for an Alternative to the WTO: Revisiting the Bandung Conference

December 19, 2015

by superadmin

The system we replace this with does not have to be as equally hegemonic but it must at least respect the diversity of our alternatives

By Sonny Africa

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is on its twentieth year of existence as it holds its tenth ministerial conference in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. It has shaped the international trade and investment regime and, correspondingly, the global economy and the conditions of billions of people since being established in 1995.

Unprecedented multilateral agreements were reached in the WTO. And even if deals stalled, the liberalizing measures proposed still found their way into hundreds of other bilateral and regional free trade deals. These benefited mainly the advanced industrial economies and their largest corporations at the expense of poor and vulnerable peoples around the world.

The outcome of neoliberal ‘free market’ policies is well-established: profits and riches for a few along with underdevelopment for the majority of the people. The search for alternatives to the WTO is more urgent than ever twenty years after its establishment. The global economy has entered into a protracted depression and its worst crisis in a century. Meanwhile the majority of the world’s people still suffer poverty, hunger, unemployment and ecological catastrophe.

The outcome of the tenth ministerial is a foregone conclusion: continued liberalization and a world economy even more organized according to the interests of capital rather than the welfare of the people. The only details remaining are the extent to which this liberalization is slowed or accelerated. There is no chance for the WTO to change direction and become an instrument for the improvement of people’s lives and national economies.

The WTO and its agreements have gone very far in defining how economies relate with each other, what becomes of countries’ natural resources and production, and how their peoples fare. These changes have been for the worse. If not the WTO, what then?

The 1955 Bandung conference

The Asian-African Conference was held on April 18-24, 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia and is recalled as the Bandung Conference. This was convened by Burma, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and attended by 24 other countries. The 29 countries present essentially represented some 1.5 billion people or the majority of the world’s population at the time.

The conference’s aims were clearly stated in its final communiqué: “The Asian-African Conference considered problems of common interest and concern to countries of Asia and Africa and discussed ways and means by which their people could achieve fuller economic, cultural and political co-operation.” The Bandung conference famously declared the South’s agenda to reform the international system to one not defined by power, oppression and exploitation, starting with the decolonization of the Third World.

In his opening speech to the conference, Pres. Sukarno of Indonesia accurately identified and warned of post-colonial era neocolonialism: “[Do] not think of colonialism only in the classic form which we of Indonesia, and our brothers in different parts of Asia and Africa, knew. Colonialism has also its modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control, actual physical control by a small but alien community within a nation. It is a skilful and determined enemy, and it appears in many guises. It does not give up its loot easily.” This is evident decades later in the current era of neoliberalism and imperialist globalization.

Bandung had its precursors but was nonetheless a historic moment and advance in Asian-African solidarity. The Third World solidarity against colonialism – and, in essence if not yet so named, against imperialism – was unprecedented. Bandung’s influence also did not end in 1955 and the conference initiated or inspired further expressions of Southern solidarity. This notably included the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961, the Group of 77 (G-77) in 1964 and the demand for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in 1974. Even the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) established in 1964 can trace its roots to the spirit of Bandung. After 60 years, Bandung’s achievement of Southern solidarity remains and our understanding today of South-South cooperation is built on the foundation it created in 1955. National liberation movements too gained momentum.

But history is not motionless and after 60 years of so many national and international struggles there are also additional experiences and insights including about paths to alternative, equitable and self-reliant socioeconomic development. The foundation of Bandung in 1955 and the 60 years since can help guide the search for the elusive alternative trade and investment regime to the WTO. Three elements with practical significance can be highlighted: Bandung’s ideals and principles, the role of the State, and the need for mass movements.

Bandung’s ideals and principles

The conference’s ideals and principles remain acutely relevant today for being so acutely unrealized and scarce. The final communiqué included a Declaration on the Promotion of World Peace and Co-operation which articulated ten principles, often referred to simply as the ‘Dasa Sila Principles’:

1. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations.
2. Recognition of the equality of all races and of the equality of all nations large and small.
3. Abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country.
4. Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself singly or collectively, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.
(a) Abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defence to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers.
(b) Abstention by any country from exerting pressures on other countries.
5. Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country.
6. Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, such as negotiation, conciliation, arbitration or judicial settlement as well as
other peaceful means of the parties’ own choice, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations. 7. Promotion of mutual interests and co-operation.
8. Respect for justice and international obligations.

These extended and developed The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence earlier reached between China and India in 1954. The principles were also declared as respecting fundamental human rights and in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations (UN).

The vision of the conference participants was also declared in clear and unambiguous language: economic development; ending colonialism in all its forms; and ending subjugation, domination and exploitation. These were to be achieved through ever greater Southern solidarity on the basis of mutual interest, respect, equality and cooperation. Bandung articulated a set of principles for inter-state engagement that was genuinely alternative to the power politics, oppression and exploitation under colonialism and imperialism.


The State has an important role in national development and attending to the welfare of the people. Although too often operating for the interests of a few, it is nonetheless a reality that cannot just be wished away. The State is a powerful mechanism for organizing society and, indeed, is already being used to organize the economy for the benefit mainly of foreign and domestic elites. But since it exists the challenge is not just to undermine it but also to use this or else it will be used against us by those who would profit from the resources of the planet and the labors of the people.

A democratic government is needed to ensure that our countries’ natural and human resources go to national development and the people’s welfare. Society has not yet reached the stage of being able to function spontaneously and without being organized. It is also critical to consider the current context. Three decades of United States (US)-led imperialist globalization through International Monetary Fund (IMF) stabilization programs, World Bank (WB) structural adjustment, WTO agreements and free trade agreements (FTAs), G-7 pressures and a wide range of domestic measures has further entrenched monopoly capitalism. The economic, political, ideological, cultural and legal instruments and mechanisms of neocolonialism are deep-rooted and have even expanded. The State will be a powerful mechanism for rejecting neoliberalism and for dealing with the certain counter-maneuvering of foreign monopoly capitalism.

The State is still needed to manage the country’s engagement with other nation-states. It is a potent way to assert sovereignty – not just national sovereignty but, more importantly, the people’s sovereignty. While inter-governmental processes can also be maximized this requires a much more united and more assertive South than at present. There are limits to bodies such as the UN and other such international institutions. But these boundaries can be expanded through more radically democratic international processes especially on the basis of successful national struggles. States are also indispensable for building the bilateral or regional Southern alliances, arrangements and institutions against US-led Northern domination.

The State moreover can be used to mobilize the people in their greatest numbers for more genuine democratic governance, for national development, and along the lines of international solidarity.

Perhaps the most important development in the last 60 years however is the growth of social movements and, especially, mass movements of the most basic and numerous sectors of society. Anti-imperialist and anti-elite mass movements have a necessary and vital role.

Mass movements of peasants, workers, indigenous people and others are the most concentrated expression and assertion of people’s sovereignty. Correspondingly they are the most important vehicles for ensuring greater attention to social justice and radical reforms even within nations, and not just between nations or between the North and the South.

They are the strongest and requisite internal political foundation of a democratic State and for resisting foreign aggression. They are the basis for building and strengthening real solidarity among the Third World and between its peoples. And relevant to the matter at hand, they are the starting point for building alternative, transformative and pro-people international trade and investment regimes.

Struggles and alternatives

The Bandung conference and the decades since are solid foundations for our struggles today. The conference stood for Southern solidarity against colonialism, domination and exploitation, as well in spirit against neocolonialism. It rallied countries to fight for national independence, to defend world peace, and to enhance friendly relations between the people of the South.

The last decades however have also affirmed the role of the State and underscored the importance of mass movements. Today we are striving for common ground versus imperialism and foreign monopoly capital, while resolving our differences considering our common enemy. We are building the strength of the people so that society upholds the people’s interest most of all.

The alternative we seek depends on how we understand the situation. There are two particularly relevant circumstances at this particular time and at this particular historical moment. First is the basically overwhelming domination of foreign monopoly capitalism in virtually every aspect of society. Second, on the other hand, the people are still building strength in each of our own countries, realms and spaces. We each have our own histories and experiences including for radical reforms and revolutionary change. Although we work together and share these we do so amid a diversity of alternatives to the exploitation and oppression of capitalism.

In this context the most urgent task at the international level is to oppose and dismantle the system that foreign monopoly capital imposes on the people. If we are speaking of the neoliberal trade and investment regime, the system we replace this with does not have to be as equally hegemonic but it must at least respect the diversity of our alternatives. This is not yet a singular specific economic and political system but rather a democratic one which lets countries and people choose. Local, community, national and regional alternatives abound.

The Bandung Conference of 1955 is by no means a ‘model’ but it is a most productive starting point. Stating the obvious, Bandung was a concrete event that we can build on. The fact that it occurred, articulated and stood for valuable ideals, and subsequently put these into practice means a great deal. The six decades since then is a rich stock of practice in struggles and alternatives that we can use to enrich what Bandung meant and will allow us to go beyond it. Today’s liberalizing international economic agreements and most regional integration arrangements do not serve the interests of the poorest nor of real national development. ###