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A global Robin Hood

Matti Kohonen and Helena Kotkowska on the rise of a new social movement aiming to redistribute wealth through taxing currency transactions.

As a social movement, ATTAC may seem puzzling at first glance. The symbol of the movement is a percentage sign, the name is a technical acronym and ATTAC itself seems to operate as a very loose network, its name cropping up in places ranging from academic literature and parliamentary debates through to mass demonstrations.

Explaining the growth of such a movement is at best tentative, yet it has certainly found common ground in the majority of European countries and beyond, playing a major role in the conferences and workshops at the European Social Forum in Florence.

The initials stand for a name that seems innocuous enough, not even perhaps very interesting - The Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens - but when ATTAC started in France in 1998, it created a furore. It was inspired by James Tobin's idea for the Tobin Tax, a tax on financial currency transactions. Every day, banks and financial institutions make profits on currency exchanges that range into billions.

Under current legislation, these profits are not taxed. James Tobin proposed that taxing currency transactions would reduce the up-and-down spirals of currencies and reduce the risk of currency crises, such as the Asian Crisis in 1997 to 1998. With the plight of developing countries foremost in mind, ATTAC took this idea one step further and argued that the revenue from this tax should be allocated to worthwhile global goals (hence its double name of the Robin Hood tax).

The European Commission calculated recently that even a modest turnover tax of 0.01% could generate around $20bn per year, effectively adding nearly 50% more to direct foreign aid (or accounting for double the Global AIDS Fund that Kofi Annan proposed at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, which is still on hold).

From France, ATTAC spread rapidly throughout Europe, including Spain, Sweden, Germany, Finland and Denmark, and now has over 80,000 members. With the growing awareness of the part that financial markets play in the imbalance between the rich North and the developing South, ATTAC's overall aim has grown since the Tobin Tax. It now also campaigns for the abolition of tax havens for reasons of tax evasion, money laundering and criminal activity (including terrorism), and it also campaigns for cancellation of Third World debt and better secured state pensions (effectively abolishing private pension funds). A main campaign being waged at the moment is against GATS.

The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is a World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement. Whilst the majority of WTO agreements concern the trade in products, GATS proposes to liberalise the global trade in services, which may include anything from waste disposal to health provision. It aims to increase international trade in services by removing 'unnecessary' restrictions and government regulations that may be 'barriers' to trade. These 'unnecessary' restrictions are usually environmental concerns, regulations ensuring minimum provision of vital utilities like water or electricity, and generally accommodating democratically decided local and national preferences on how these services should be provided.

In January 2002, the ATTAC London local group was founded and one of its first preoccupations was how it should operate in the UK. It was decided to adopt the decentralized model of organisation as used by ATTAC Sweden, which relies on local group co-ordination of campaigns and other activities on a national level. A consensus was therefore reached to first form a network of autonomous local ATTAC groups, and only then to think about creating a national organisation. In this way, the principle of working 'from the bottom up' was adopted as a more effective way of building a participatory and democratic movement.

Local groups can reflect more truthfully the concerns of their members and also give members the opportunity to try out different types of self-organisation and approaches to democracy, as long as they follow the principles of the ATTAC platform. In addition, local groups can concentrate on those issues which interest them most. So ATTAC Jersey, as one would expect, is concentrating on tax havens. Most decisions are made by a process of discussion - either at meetings or via mailing lists, which are archived for the purpose of transparency - and an important tool linking all the groups is the ATTAC Britain website (www.attac.org.uk), as well as an online collaborative editing tool called WIKI, where people can view and contribute to all work in progress.

The explanation for ATTAC's rapid growth in just over four years lies in the fact that the essence of ATTAC is its simplicity and its belief in democracy. Instead of financial flows hiding money in tax havens and making money by crashing central bank reserves, speculating on our pensions and taking interest from the poorest countries' debt, it is citizens, not bankers, who should decide how the economy is shaped, and which industries are to be privatised and how money should be distributed. It is a question of placing the democratic principles of governance before the interests of international finance. As ATTAC says: it is simply about regaining, together, the future of our world.