‘We are too beholden to trade’ a trade official of a developing country told me at the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Doha, Qatar last November.
The meeting was a bizarre affair. The last WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle had floundered largely because the street protests empowered developing countries to stand up to the might of the West. In Doha, against a background of sealed-off, people-less streets, Western governments were so desperate for a deal that they arm-twisted developing-country ministers to an unprecedented extent. The WTO secretariat too was desperate; its very credibility was on the line if there was a repeat of Seattle.
In the end there was a deal of sorts. But the declaration agreed by ministers – to launch a new round of negotiations to liberalize world trade – is so weak it means almost nothing.
WTO agreements already cover many of the goods and services that are traded internationally. There was a clear lack of enthusiasm in Doha for extending the WTO’s mandate to include the new issues that the European Union especially had pushed for – investment, competition, transparency, government procurement and trade facilitation. Negotiations on these issues will not start until after the next WTO ministerial meeting in 2003 and countries will then have the right to veto them – they could therefore be postponed indefinitely.
This lack of enthusiasm could signal something else – a rethink of the role of trade. Despite the WTO’s rhetoric of launching a ‘Development Round’, the reality is that trade has failed to deliver for most developing countries; for most the outcome of the last round of talks, the Uruguay Round, concluded in 1993, has not contributed to reducing poverty.
But then the rules of world trade were written by Western governments with ample assistance from the corporate sector. For developing countries they are someone else’s agenda: the rules make development policy subservient to trade. For example, under the WTO agreement on trade-related investment measures (TRIMS) a country cannot give preference to domestic supplies to encourage local industries and stimulate development. Foreign companies must be accorded the same treatment.
Before the Doha meeting, ‘developing countries had made more than 100 concrete proposals to make WTO rules fair to the poor. Very few of these were taken on board,’ says Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement. Doha was a test for Western counties and they flunked it, showing no interest in changing world rules to benefit the poor.
Developing countries feel resentment over what is now going on. The WTO has irritated many governments by its unwillingness to listen to their concerns about the impact of trade liberalization on their countries. For them, dependence on the vagaries of world trade does not seem like the route to sustainable development – especially given the indifference of its institutions.
A further cloud on the horizon is the prospect, post-Doha, of the liberalization of trade in services, under the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Talks on the GATS are due to take place this month (11-22 March) in Geneva. GATS is a dream agreement for the transnational corporations who provide internationally traded services – and the WTO lists 160 such services.
Countries can, in theory, decide which of their service sectors they open up to foreign companies. But developing countries are coming under enormous pressure to open up key public services such as water supply. A recent Christian Aid report alleged that Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has withheld aid funds for water supply in Kumasi, Ghana, until bids for the leases of Ghana’s urban supplies have been received. ‘Aid is being used as a lever to open up Ghana’s water sector to multinational companies,’ warns the report.
This kind of pressure only increases resentment. With the prices of many primary commodities at all-time lows and with Western countries maintaining sizeable barriers against key manufactured goods from developing countries, a raw deal from services is the last thing they need.
‘Let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonable and conveniently possible,’ advised economist John Maynard Keynes. Trade is in the dock. Unless there is a serious attempt to change world trade rules by the time of the next WTO meeting in 2003, developing countries may well decide to put far more emphasis on production for local consumption than on trade.
For a more detailed account of the preparations in New York for the Monterrey conference, see the special feature on the NI website: www.newint.org/streets/ffd/
The global citizens movement has made a momentous discovery and revealed a dangerous truth: the corporate coup d’état, the triumph of rich over poor, market over society, rapacity over nature is not inevitable.
It put this lesson to good use at the World Social Forum, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from 31 January to 5 February 2002, held at the same time as the World Economic Forum (WEF) – fleeing its usual venue in Davos – met in New York.
In Porto Alegre, the emphasis was not merely on stopping the adversary from committing ever more egregious horrors, but also on developing consensus around a more forceful agenda of proposals and devising strategies for attaining them.
The forces that comprise the global citizens movement understand that only a political project can save the planet’s ecology and provide for the inclusion of everyone in the global economy on decent and dignified terms. Battle lines are being more clearly drawn than at any time in the past hundred years, and they are being drawn internationally.
The powers that be repeat the same tired formulas and insist that they are sole guardians of the Truth. Refusing to hear what the movement is saying, they have chosen to insulate themselves from it.
Our movement is opposed to market-driven corporate globalization but is not ‘anti-globalization’, as the media constantly refer to it. Technology and travel are clearly bringing us closer together, and this is all to the good. Movement forces are anti-inequity, anti-poverty, anti-injustice as well as pro-solidarity, pro-environment and pro-democracy.
While they may not agree on every detail of every issue, they share the basics. They refuse the ‘Washington Consensus’ vision of how the world should work. Often unjustly accused of ‘having nothing to propose’, they are, on the contrary, constantly refining their arguments and their counter-proposals.
So far the citizens movement wants to remain exactly that: a movement. It has suffered no temptations to transform itself into a political party, much less a ‘revolutionary’ party, and its members come from a variety of party-political backgrounds or, frequently, none at all.
However, if the concerns brought forward by the movement are not dealt with, and soon, we will witness even deeper social divides, increasing disgust with nominally democratic institutions, hardening of positions, confrontation and escalation of violence, mostly by the State. Those who maintain that the present world system is incapable of self-regulation and reform will be proven correct.
There is no polite way to say this: movement people, particularly young people, are angry. Nowhere in the realms of existing power can they discern the slightest sign of serious recognition or responsible behaviour concerning the life-threatening problems faced by human beings and the earth; neither on the part of the G8 governments and the European Commission, nor that of the multilateral institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO; nor, above all, the transnational corporations, the financial markets and their numerous lobbies that have assumed unprecedented sway over human affairs.
What this movement does see is unbridled greed, the undivided reign of capital over labour and of rich over poor, rules made to ensure freedom of trade in all goods and services at the expense of every human value; rampant privatization, the destruction of public services and the dismantling of welfare states where they exist and policies to make them forever impossible where they do not; massive and accelerating destruction of the earth, its climate and its creatures – all this in the name of a fraudulent ‘efficiency’, increased profits, and ‘shareholder value’.
That is why this movement is not going to go away; also, why State-corporate power is hardening and can be expected to continue to repress, defame and criminalize citizens exercising their democratic rights.
Repeated claims of its desire to ‘help the poor’ ring increasingly hollow. The Genoa G8 proposal of a miserable $1.5 billion to deal with AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis was particularly disgraceful given that Kofi Annan had, only weeks previously, asked the ‘international community’ for $7-10 billion to deal with AIDS alone. This ‘international community’, led by the G8, has so far rejected every opportunity for remedy in every area, and listened only to a minority. Thus a new generation, not all of it young, a kind of ‘trans-generational, trans-class, trans-gender and trans-national generation’ is rising internationally in opposition.
And we will be heard.
Susan George is Associate Director of the Transnational Institute
The NI reports from Porto Alegre online at www.newint.org/streets/brazil/
Environmental policies remain a low priority. The growing number of international environmental treaties and other initiatives suffer from weak commitments and inadequate funding. The UN Environment Programme has struggled to maintain its annual budget of roughly $100 million. At the same time, military expenditures by the world’s governments are running at more than two billion dollars a day. Foreign-aid spending is declining. Despite a more than 30-per-cent expansion in global economic output in the years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, aid spending has declined substantially, falling from $69 billion to $53 billion in 2000.
Third World indebtedness is getting worse. Despite pledges at Rio to reduce indebtedness, the total debt burden in developing and transition countries has climbed 34 per cent, reaching $2.5 trillion in 2000.
State of the World Report 2002, Worldwatch Institute
On a balmy Brisbane afternoon I am sitting in a bare-walled, inner-city flat as Ahmad tells me of talabe bakhshish – the exchange of forgiveness before dying. Ahmad describes the guilt he felt when, with a bowed head, he asked his wife Masuma to forgive past wrongs and then looked up at their small daughter Fatima. For he believed that it was his desire to find a new life for his family that was responsible for their imminent deaths.
It was the culmination of a three-month journey. As part of the Hazari ethnic minority which has long been persecuted by the Taliban, they had fled toward a peace and a freedom from fear that have been unknown in Afghanistan for over 20 years.
From the moment they left their homes they became illegal aliens due to the restrictions on traveling within Afghanistan. Leaving Kabul in the back of a truck, they huddled under a tarpaulin to evade the Taliban at the frequent checkpoints.
Crossing the border into Pakistan, they travelled by night, their only news of the outside world coming from the people smugglers. In Pakistan they boarded a ship at night, unsure where they were to land. Ahmad motions that the tiny kitchen is larger than the hold in which he and 13 other refugees spent more than a month. ‘We slept with our legs tucked up’ – he brings his knees up to his chin. Not allowed on deck, they were given a child’s potty to share between 14.
In West Papua they boarded another boat ‘like matchsticks’, smaller than the lounge room we sit in. As they journeyed south, the boat was often swamped by water and the engine failed constantly. They navigated with a compass and watch. Soon his wife and child became ill.
Eventually they landed on a small island in the Torres Strait, near Australia, with no water or food and only a net to catch fish. They drank rainwater where they could find it. Some of their group began to drink seawater.
It was their third day on the island when he and his wife exchanged talabe bakhshish. ‘We said goodbye to our life and accepted that death was certain.’
Hours later, a low-flying coastal surveillance aircraft appeared on their horizon. They waved their torch desperately at it. Later that day, a Australian military plane delivered water and food. I asked how he felt giving his daughter food and water after believing she was to die. ‘Numb,’ he says. Not happy or sad, but simply numb that after three months of desperate living his family were safe and their journey was finally over.
But it wasn’t over.
They were sent to Woomera detention center in the South Australian desert, five hours’ drive from the state capital, Adelaide. ‘In Woomera for five months we looked out the window and all we saw was the fence and barbed wire.’ He describes the people inside slowly going insane as they grapple with what they see as punishment for the crime of wanting freedom and safety.
He bounces his daughter on his knee, a bright and beautiful five-year-old. It has been over four months since they were released from detention but his daughter still wakes them in the early hours of the morning with nightmares and questions. ‘Are we free?’ she asks her father. ‘Do we have to return to the camp?’ Now he takes her for walks by the river. ‘There are no fences here,’ he says. On the detention centers, he simply shakes his head and says that the time there was ‘too hard and too long. It was like being on the island a second time.’
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