Walden Bello


  • Rosalba Icaza

    1. is a Lecturer in Governance and International Political Economy at the Institute of Social Studies, PO Box 29776, 2502 LT The Hague, The Netherlands. She specializes in the international political economy of transborder civic activism, with regard to regionalism, democracy and gender, with a particular emphasis on Latin America and Mexico. Her most recent publications include contributions to the books Global Democracy and the World Social Forums (Paradigm Publishers, 2007) and Big Picture Realities: Canada and Mexico at the Crossroads (Laurier Press, 2008). She is currently working on the manuscript ‘Civil Society in the Making of New Regionalisms: Power and Resistance Across Borders’.
    Search for more papers by this author

Walden Bello, one of the leading representatives of the global justice and solidarity movement (GJSM), was born in Manila, Philippines in 1945. He received his PhD in sociology from Princeton University in 1975, and has been a full professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines at Diliman since 1997. He was recently appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada, and Adjunct Professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He has taught or held the position of Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles, Irvine and Santa Barbara; he was Chancellor's Fellow at UC Irvine in 2004 and was awarded an honorary PhD by Panteion University in Athens, Greece, in 2005.1 During the 1970s and 1980s, Bello became a key figure in the international movement to restore democracy in the Philippines, co-ordinating the Anti-Martial Law Coalition and establishing the Philippines Human Rights Lobby in Washington. From 1995 to 2007, he served as the executive director of Focus on the Global South, an institute working on global justice issues affiliated with Chulalongkorn University. Currently, Bello is the president of Freedom from Debt Coalition, a member and former chair of the board of Greenpeace South East Asia and a board member of Food First, the International Forum on Globalization, and the Transnational Institute.

In 1998 Bello received the New California Media Award for Best International Reporting, and in 2003 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize). In 2008, he was named Outstanding Public Scholar by the International Studies Association (ISA) for ‘his lifetime contribution to scholarship and activism on the international political economy of development and his work for global justice’.2 Bello is the author or co-author of fifteen books on global, Asian, and Philippine issues; his articles have appeared in a wide range of periodicals including Review of International Political Economy, Third World Quarterly, Foreign Policy, Race and Class, Le Monde Diplomatique, Le Monde, Guardian, Boston Globe, Far Eastern Economic Review, and La Jornada. He is currently a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Foreign Policy in Focus and an editor of the Review of International Political Economy.

  • RI: The objective of this interview is to know more about Walden Bello — the academic and committed activist — about these two identities and professional activities, and how one informs the other. So, let me start with this first question: how did your interest in political activism begin?
  • WB: My politics really began when I went to graduate school in the US. This was at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests. One day, I attended a protest against the Institute for Defense Analysis, which was a kind of Pentagon think tank within Princeton University. I only wanted to show my support, but when police started to manhandle the demonstrators something happened inside me, I crossed a psychological line, and suddenly, I was also participating in the blockade of the Institute. This was a decisive moment, because I knew that by doing this I would be deported if arrested. As a foreign student I was not supposed to engage in US politics, but I thought at that moment that I would rather be deported than tolerate the police brutality against the demonstrators. I was arrested and convicted, but to my surprise I was not deported, perhaps because US security and immigration authorities' record keeping was not so co-ordinated at that time!I continued with my studies and got quite interested in what was happening in Chile. In 1972, I started my doctoral dissertation on how political organizing was going on in shantytowns in Santiago during a revolutionary period. So I went to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a three-week Spanish course — although it didn't help me much when I arrived in Chile since Chileans speak Spanish faster than Mexicans! So, I had to learn my Spanish in the streets. At that moment, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Salvador Allende's government and its so-called ‘peaceful road to socialism’. In fact, I think that this was the moment when I became a progressive. However, after three months in the shantytowns, what I found in the country was not a growing revolution but a rising counter-revolution. The revolution was beleaguered.At that point, I felt that if I was to do relevant research, both politically and intellectually, then it was important to study the counter-revolution. So, I shifted my dissertation topic to the dynamics of counter-revolution and ended up interviewing middle class right-wing people who couldn't understand why a brown skinned person like me was asking them the questions that I was asking. Often, they were really hostile and I was nearly beaten up twice. Some thought that I was a Cuban agent and they pointed to the left-wing newspapers that I was foolishly carrying with me along with the more conservative newspapers. They laughed at me when I explained that I needed to follow what both sides were thinking.By mid 1972, it was clear that these people, many of them young people affiliated with the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Party, controlled the streets of Santiago, something that I thought was similar to what had earlier happened in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Eventually, I finished my research and returned to Princeton and got involved in solidarity work against the Pinochet dictatorship after the September 1973 coup. By then, I was both an activist and an engaged intellectual trying to understand class conflict in revolutionary times. The thesis ended up as a comparison of the counter-revolutionary role of the middle class in Chile from 1971 to 1973 and in Italy and Germany in the 1920s.Two things became quite clear to me while doing this dissertation. First, contrary to the prevailing explanations on the coup pointing to Pinochet's success as something that he owed to US intervention and the CIA, I argued that the counter-revolution was already there, that it was largely determined by internal class dynamics, and that the Chilean elites were able to connect with middle class sectors terrified by the prospects of poor sectors rising up with their agenda of justice and equality. In sum, the US intervention was successful, because it was inserted into an ongoing counter-revolutionary process. Therefore, US intervention was just one of the factors but not the decisive one. Second, the thesis showed that contrary to the assumption in political development circles at the time, the middle classes are not necessarily forces for democratization in developing countries. In fact, when the poorer classes are being mobilized with a revolutionary agenda, the middle classes can become a mass base for counter-revolution. Since then, I have always had strong apprehensions about the middle class and how it can easily swing from being a force of progress to being a force for counter-revolution.
  • RI: How does Walden Bello manage tensions that arise from assuming positions of leadership as the person ‘who knows’, and more participative/horizontal ways of working? I am asking you this because, according to some, your dynamic activism in the global justice and solidarity movement (GJSM) makes you one of leading representatives resisting corporate-led globalization.
  • WB: First, I don't think that I ever had the intention of being seen as a ‘leader’ of what became known as a ‘movement of movements’. Neither did many others who were projected as ‘leaders’. We just happened to be working on different problems spawned by globalization, and this brought us into common opposition against it. Second, I think that much of my work has been more than academic. It has been an active engagement against corporate-led globalization and for alternatives to it.Second, on the tension between being an intellectual and being part of a participatory movement for change — well, I was always uncomfortable with the vanguardist concept of leadership, and it is one of the things that has brought grief to Marxist-Leninist movements. You've got to fight for your position in democratic debate. If you lose there, well, you accept your setback and recognize the legitimacy of the majority. At the same time, moral leadership is very important even if what you're promoting is not popular.
  • RI: As a recognized leader of the movement, what are, from your perspective, the main victories and the main setbacks of this movement?
  • WB: Clearly, I would say that Seattle was a very important moment. It was both planned and unplanned. We realized that the WTO Ministerial in Seattle was going to be a decisive moment, and there was this sense of something big that was going to happen in the battle against globalization that had brought so many of us there, since the WTO was the premier institution of globalization. But at the same time there was no hierarchy or central leadership planning things. In fact, Seattle showed that a movement that is spontaneous, flat, and structured as a network can become a really effective vehicle for social change.Another high point was the collapse of the WTO Ministerial in Cancun, from which the WTO never recovered. The founding of the World Social Forum (WSF) in 2001 was another important point for the movement. This was something that we in Focus in the Global South supported as it emerged. I would say that in terms of the Global Justice Movement these were three of the major victories. There was a fourth one, something that was also decisive — the global mobilization against the war in Iraq, on 15 February 2003, that brought millions of people onto the streets.Now, in terms of the setbacks. 9/11 is clearly one of them. The movement had a great deal of energy after Seattle, the first WSF and then Genoa. We were going to have a big mobilization against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington in the fall of 2001 and then 9/11 happened and the US and the establishment tried to use it as a mechanism to defuse the movement. To the extent that they were able to slow the momentum that we had built up, that certainly was a setback for us.
  • RI: In relation to the WSF, I recently talked with Peter Waterman3 about the challenge that the WSF is facing in including marginalized sectors, especially when a large proportion of WSF participants are academics and increasingly, representatives of North-funded NGOs. What do you think are the most pressing challenges that the WSF is facing now and what is the potential for overcoming them?
  • WB: The WSF has to cease being an event or space and start becoming a movement, which means taking positions and fighting against the US, the WTO, neoliberalism and empire. The period when it had to be an open space was necessary, but the demands now are different. Unfortunately, some of the founders of the WSF want to keep it in its infancy.
  • RI: On another topic, some people know that you broke into the World Bank headquarters in Washington, and brought out 3,000 pages of confidential documents that provided the material for your book Development Debacle: the World Bank in the Philippines (Walden et al., 1982). What did you learn from this ‘unorthodox research method’ as an academic and activist? What are the lessons learned from this interesting and challenging experience?
  • WB: Well, when I got my PhD in 1975, an academic career was something that I had no intention of pursuing. The task at that time was quite clear to me: to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship. I became part of an international network connected to the Philippine underground and a full-time activist. I went to Washington and helped set up an office that lobbied the US Congress to cut aid to the Marcos regime. Soon we realized that in order to do effective work, we had to look at all the dimensions of US support for the dictatorship. For example, the largest part of US aid to Marcos was channelled through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the problem was that the lack of transparency of the Bank meant that we couldn't get any information about the Bank programmes. The only information that we got was sanitized press releases. It became clear that the only way to show what the Bank was doing and expose it, was to get the documents from within the Bank itself. At first, we formed a network of informants within the Bank. These were acquaintances — liberals with a conscience. Our work was part of a process of building what was effectively a counter-intelligence network, not only within the Bank, but also within the State Department and other agencies of the US government. You know, you really needed to cultivate contacts!Well, these people started to occasionally bring us some documents, but this was a tedious although necessary process. The information was not enough, so we thought that it was necessary to resort to more radical means. So, my associates and I investigated the patterns of behaviour of Bank people and we realized that there were some times in the year when there was nobody in the Bank — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, etc. On those days and over a period of three years, we went to the Bank pretending that we were returning from a mission, with our ties askew, and that we were just coming from Africa, India, etc. The security guards always asked for our IDs and when we pretended to fumble for them — and as we looked so tired — they said ‘OK, just go inside’. It always worked. As you can tell, security was quite lax on those days.Once we were inside, we were like cats in a fish bowl. We took as many documents as we could, and not only on the Philippines, and xeroxed them using the Bank facilities. This happened over three years! First, we held press conferences to expose the documents piece by piece, to the embarrassment of both the Bank and the Marcos regime, and eventually, we came out with the book in 1982. According to many people, this publication contributed to the unravelling of the Marcos regime. As for what I learned, well it was that to do really effective research sometimes you need to break the law. Going after the truth is something that often cannot be done by survey questionnaires. You really have to go after it, even if it means breaking the law. But, we were quite careful going about it and we were not able to tell the real story about how we get the documents until ten years later (1992), when the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution in the US had lapsed. My associates and I could have served twenty-five years in jail had we been caught breaking into the Bank.
  • RI: For many, your book Dragons in Distress (Walden and Rosenfeld, 1990) was not only a critique of the Asian economic ‘miracle’ but also a prediction of what would happen six years later, when the financial collapse swept through the region. What has happened in Asia since the crisis? Are there any interesting steps taken by governments in terms of speculative capital markets regulation or does everything remain the same?
  • WB: First of all, the critique in Dragons was focused on the structural features of the Asian model as exemplified by Taiwan and Korea. People often say that we predicted the financial crisis. We didn't do that. The only area that we did not really look at, in fact, was the financial sector. However, the structural contradictions that we wrote about are the elements that have become very pronounced in the last few years: the crisis in the agricultural sector, in the environment, the fact that you did not have a technological deepening of these countries in a sustained way, and that export-oriented strategy is a dead end. These were the elements that we studied in Dragons. Some of these, especially the crisis of the export-oriented model, have only become very prominent in recent years.Now, in terms of what has happened since the Asian financial crisis, well, a couple of things. One is that despite the fact that it became widely accepted that it was volatile and uncontrolled capital flows which had created the crisis, there has been very little effort to institute effective controls on global speculative flows. There have been no effective measures put in place, because global finance capital really refuses to allow them.The second thing is that after the crisis, the US and the IMF really made a big effort to ‘reform’ the Asian tiger economies and rid them of their protectionist regimes and their industrial policies. The US saw this as an opportunity to complete the neoliberal revolution in Asia. However, this has not been so successful. I think that a key reason is the IMF's bad management of these economies' crises, which deepened their recessions, thus creating tremendous resentment against free-market policies, especially in Southeast Asia (for example, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia). However, there is one country that has been really transformed: South Korea. It has been transformed from a developmental state to a neoliberal state. Now, what is interesting here is that Japan was also under tremendous pressure from the US and IMF to radically transform itself into a neoliberal state, but it has successfully resisted these pressures and remains largely what Chalmers Johnson4 calls a ‘developmental state’. I guess Japan was simply too big to be pushed around whereas South Korea wasn't — or was too dependent on the US economically and strategically.After the crisis, many of these countries swore that they would never again be victimized in the same way and they have done three things. Firstly, some of them threw out the IMF. Thailand did this in 2003 setting an example for many (including Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela). Indonesia says that it is going to pay off all its debts to the IMF by the end of this year and some of these countries have resolved that they won't go back to the IMF, because they don't want to be subjected to its conditionalities.The second thing is that they built up tremendous dollar reserves as a first line of defence against any sort of speculative attack. The dollar reserves of the Asian countries amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. In fact, a lot of these dollars have been loaned to the US to keep up American middle class spending for their exports, but that is another story!The third thing is that a number of these countries, together with China, South Korea and Japan, have come together in ASEAN+3, the Association of East Asian Nations plus 3, to work out bilateral arrangements to repel future speculative attacks on their currencies. This is a lesson that has come from the Asian crisis. We don't have anything as dramatic as in Latin America with the formation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas or ALBA, but certainly I think that we have a region that is better prepared than before the financial crisis and where the IMF has become increasingly marginalized.
  • RI: It is quite interesting that you mention ALBA. For many activists in the Americas, ALBA is not a sudden creation of Venezuelan and Cuban governments but an outcome of decades of social mobilization, ideas and proposals criticizing economic liberalization's emphasis on regionalism. From my point of view, this is where the ‘alternative’ nature of ALBA lies. The problem is that for many, including circles within the Venezuelan and Cuban governments, ALBA is mainly an expression of state-led regionalism. So, why is ALBA so dramatic from your perspective?
  • WB: I have tried to follow ALBA and I think that it is something really new. This is not a typical trade agreement; it is an economic arrangement that really puts mutual development ahead of free trade. It is not limited to trade but seeks comprehensive development. This is a kind of work in progress; it is in motion and this is partly why it is so interesting.The different elements of ALBA are not necessarily coherent but nevertheless all together they represent a different paradigm. For instance, the fact that fourteen Caribbean countries are given a 40 per cent discount off the world market price of oil by Venezuela — this is very, very important for their survival and development. The fact that Bolivia is allowed to exchange soybeans for oil with Venezuela is also significant. These moves really reflect something that is different from free trade. Chavez himself said when he addressed the WSF participants in 2006 that ALBA follows a ‘logic’ that goes beyond capitalism.The important thing with ALBA is that it represents a break with neoliberalism and that it is happening at the regional level. Of course, the process is not without its problems. For example, in Brazil, there have been some real setbacks when it comes to an alternative project. In Argentina, the Kirchner government's unilateral move against the creditors has been really inspiring, but there has been some criticism saying that there is no comprehensive alternative project. And, of course, in Chile, we can say that what they have there is a sort of neoliberalism in a social democratic guise. But the discussion and debate that ALBA has stimulated in relation to breaking with neoliberalism and the US and the sharpness of the break — this is not found in Asia at this point in time.
  • RI: Let's move now to Focus on the Global South. Your work in Focus has been an important reference for searching on alternatives to market-led development, for criticisms to the export-oriented model and many other issues. What has Focus meant for you as a scholar-activist?
  • WB: Our work in Focus has been an effort to bring analysis and activism together. We always felt that as analysts we must be very much connected to civil society and practice, because if we are not, then our analysis and models are not rooted, or they are products of an ‘Ivory Tower’. This is something that is central in the identity of Focus. We also always see our work as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. The deconstruction part is very important: we work hard to expose as fully as possible the pernicious work of the World Bank, the IMF and the US power structure. In other words, it is crucial to have solid work that shows how these institutions operate, including the working of the ideology of neoliberalism. This has to be done as consistently and professionally as possible.But this work is incomplete unless we can begin to offer alternatives. This alternative is broadly called de-globalization: what we need is to break with corporate and market kinds of arrangements and solutions and have our activism and our search for alternatives guided by the fundamental values of democracy, justice, equality, and subsidiarity — subsidiarity meaning, as much as possible, keeping production and decision making at the local level. Promoting common values, not the reduction of unit cost as in neoclassical economics, should be seen as the ultimate principle of alternative economics.In fact, the principles of alternative economics are already there and many people are working on these principles. To come out with an alternative paradigm then, we need to understand that the key value of neoliberal market economics is reducing the unit cost of production. What we are basically saying in Focus is ‘that's not the model’. Progressive economics or alternative economic arrangements could be inefficient in narrow economic terms of reducing unit cost, but effective, because they keep societies together or because they promote fundamental social values.As I said, the principles of alternative economics are already there, but there is no one model at this point in time, since different societies will have to configure the values and strategies of alternative economics according to their values, rhythms and objectives. There is no single model that can fit every country. The socialist experience was one kind of ‘one shoe fits all’ model and look what happened to it. The neoliberal model was another ‘one shoe fits all’ model and it also failed. Diversity will be a mark of the socio-economies of the future, and this will simply reflect the diversity of societies even as they share common fundamental values. This is the perspective that Focus has at this point in time.
  • RI: Do you think that the current crisis in the financial markets and in the US is going to bring a new momentum for alternative proposals?
  • WB: Since the early 1990s, we have been saying that globalization is reversible and people who thought we were crazy then are now starting to realize that globalization has brought nothing but massive crises for the majority of the people. Even Joseph Stiglitz,5 who believes that globalization is essentially good, has recognized that globalization is reversible. What is happening is that this crisis of globalization is bringing about a movement against it. Of course, this crisis is going to hit us hard, but for those like us, who look at how globalization has created tremendous inequalities, this crisis is an opportunity. I think that within the next few years what we will see is a strong movement away from global integration.
  • RI: One of your latest interests has been climate change. Is climate change an opportunity or a threat to humanity? How can we bring justice and equity considerations into the discussions on climate change?
  • WB: I think that global warming has to be countered effectively, but this is not possible only through ‘technofixes' which fix the world at the level of inequalities that we have today. The dominant approach to climate change has been a market-based one focused on carbon trading. Addressing climate change is an enterprise that the big countries and corporations are not taking seriously. Countering global warming through market solutions and technofixes like nuclear power or massive hydro dams or carbon sequestration and storage devices is not addressing the root of the problem which is not energy use, but the paradigm of consumption. What we are saying is that the paradigm of capitalist development has to be addressed because it is a mode of production that intrinsically depends on the transformation of living nature into dead commodities, in the interest of profits, and that creates massive amounts of waste. The climate crisis is inherent to the dynamics of overproduction and overconsumption that capitalism, as a mode of production, engenders.Therefore, what we are proposing is to make equity considerations central in world climate adjustment. Clearly, everybody will need to adjust, but some will have to adjust more than others. The adjustment will have to be done mainly in the North. We are talking about a radical reduction in carbon emissions that will entail changing lifestyles in the North, something of the order of a reduction of 80 to 90 per cent from 1990 levels.In the South, we will need to adjust, too. For example, we can no longer reproduce the same system of production of the North, the same kind of lifestyles and consumption. These are tremendously stressful to the environment. Indeed, countries like China will have to realize that there is no viable way they can replicate the Northern model without bringing down the whole world. So the adjustment will have to be global, although the bulk of the adjustment will need to take place in the North.The big question is whether capitalism will be able to survive climate change. We really need to move towards alternative models of development that place equity at the centre of things: an emphasis on lower growth but greater equity. Thus, climate change can be an opportunity to push forward the alternatives that have long been ignored or opposed, because these are the only ones that can offer the viable long-term solutions to climate change. So the current moment is one of great danger but also of great opportunity.
  • RI: You have received some very important prizes in your life: in 2003 you won the Right Livelihood Award, and this March you will be awarded the 2008 Public Scholar Award from ISA in San Francisco. What has this recognition meant for you at the personal level and also for your work?
  • WB: I have always looked at these awards as giving not so much individual recognition as recognition of a movement that one is part of. This is collective recognition. The work that I have done has always been carried on with others. For example, the World Bank book (Development Debacle) wouldn't have been possible without my co-authors and the network of people we created. Focus's work on alternatives is built on the shoulders of others. There is no such thing as ‘intellectual property rights' in the world of the global justice movement.I think that the ISA award in particular also recognizes an approach that doesn't reduce intellectual work to activism or activism to intellectual work. These are two separate dimensions that always exist in tension. I learnt about this early in my life: you have to go for the truth even if it is not politically convenient. For instance, in my work on Chile, it would have been politically convenient to say that the CIA created the coup. But that was not true; it was largely created by a counter-revolutionary movement that emerged in domestic class conflict. Another example of this is when you must criticize governments even if they are progressive, if they adopt wrong policies that either won't work or will go against the common welfare. For instance, at the World Social Forum meeting with President Chavez in January 2006, I had no choice but to publicly criticize the president when his government went back on its promise to veto the WTO declaration in Hong Kong because he wanted to please Brazil, which wanted a successful trade round. ALBA is another example. ALBA is largely a good thing, but we also have to criticize its questionable elements, like the proposal to build 1,000 km long oil and gas pipelines from Venezuela to Argentina, which is bad for the environment and bad for indigenous peoples. So, activism and committed intellectual work cannot be reduced to one another, they are complementary and also in tension.Finally, I think that these awards honour a certain kind of activism that puts a lot of emphasis not only on the objectives of change — of radical change — but also on how you get there. In other words, the end and the means are very much related. The Zapatistas express this better than me. I think it was Subcomandante Marcos who said that if what we have is a worthy objective that in the long run can only be imposed by a revolutionary army, by authoritarian means, then it is not worth it. The process and the objective have to go together and in my life I have had to break with political movements, because they violated democratic values in the process.From my perspective then, these awards do three things. They honour a movement. They valorize an approach that says that the objective of change cannot be divorced from the process of achieving it. And finally, they recognize that intellectual work and activist work are complementary and in tension with each other, and that one of the engaged intellectual's worst mistakes is to reduce one to the other.
  • RI: Walden, this has been quite inspiring — especially because I have been hearing in the whole interview that when you talk about your work you always says ‘we’. Thank you for your time and reflections, Walden.
  • WB: Oh no, thank you for your interest.


  • 1

    More information on Walden Bello's trajectory can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden_Bello, http://www.focusweb.org, http://www.waldenbello.org/

  • 2

    The words of ISA Outstanding Public Scholar committee chair Dr Barry Gills. For more information, see http://www.isanet.org.

  • 3

    Based in The Hague, the Netherlands, Peter Waterman is an independent researcher/publicist, with an interest in international labour movements, global social movements, internationalisms, global solidarity and culture.

  • 4

    Chalmers Johnson, an American professor emeritus of the University of California, San Diego, is co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute and an authority on Japan and China.

  • 5

    Joseph Stiglitz, an American economist and professor at Columbia University, and former World Bank Senior Vice President and Chief Economist.