1998 – Defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI)

The leak of a secretive draft text that would minimise regulation of corporate investments, called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), led to a global network of civil society organisations to mobilise public awareness and put pressure on largely unaware politicians to end the negotiations. The campaign used what some called a ‘Dracula’ strategy based on the idea that just bringing MAI to light would be enough to kill it. Growing public pressure and concern led negotiations to stall and then end in October 1998.

In September 1995, members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) began to secretly negotiate a draft agreement called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) that sought to minimise state regulations on corporate investments.

After the document was leaked, a number of organisations in Europe, North America and Asia started to share its details with a wider public and media. Initially made up of a small group of citizen research and consumer groups (Polaris Institute, Public Citizen) and activist-scholars such as Susan George and Martin Khor, the campaign soon gathered the support of bigger organisations such as Confederation Paysanne in France, Greenpeace and the UK Trade Union Congress.

The global network raised public concern about the threats MAI posed to legislation that protected human rights, labor rights, the environment, as well as the restrictions it would put on developing countries right to develop. They also pointed to the undue influence of corporations on the negotiations, evident in the way draft texts mirrored proposals by Business Europe.

The campaign was one of the early global coalitions to make the most of the Internet to facilitate information-exchange and coordinate pressure on OECD decision-makers.  National campaigns targeted government decision-makers and politicians, many of whom were equally in the dark about the negotiations. At local level, many cities and local authorities passed resolutions opposing MAI.

The pressure was also accompanied by timely protests, including in May 1998, at the Montreal Conference on Globalized Economies, when hundreds of protesters created a nonviolent blockade with their bodies for a period of five hours.

In September 1998, French MEP, Catherine Lalumière produced a report that accepted many of the critiques and suggested restarting negotiations or moving them to the WTO. Lalumiere noted that "On a subject which is highly technical, the representatives of civil society seemed to us perfectly well informed, and their criticisms well argued on a legal level."

After receiving this report, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a month later announced that France planned to withdraw from the negotiations. The withdrawal of France, as the host nation of the talks, essentially froze negotiations and as MAI’s adoption required consensus effectively killed off MAI.

The defeat of MAI laid the ground for the protests at the World Trade Organisation in Seattle the following year and continues to inspire the anti-corporate trade deals movements that have mobilised ever since.