Searching for an alternative to the WTO: revisiting the Bandung Conference

Sonny Africa, a progressive economist, director at TWHA partner IBON in the Philippines, wrote an article about an 'alternative WTO' which is summarized below.
There is still much to learn from the principles of 1955

The article in 5 lines:

We need to find an alternative to the neoliberal World Trade Organization which celebrated its 20th anniversary. The WTO serves primarily the interests of the rich industrialized countries at the expense of the most vulnerable peoples. For this quest, we find inspiration in the Bandung Conference. 29 countries from Asia and Africa spoke to each other in 1955 in Indonesia: they were also seeking economic, cultural and political cooperation, but without power, oppression and exploitation. There is still much to learn from the principles of 1955 (as sovereignty) of the then debated role of the state (democratization) and the need for mass movements for the social struggle.


Abstract of the article of Sonny Africa:

19 December 2015 / 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. (Original version)

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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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 the following ‘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.

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.

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. It is 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 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.

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. Mass movements 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.

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.

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.