I step out of the Underground and into London’s finest – one of those resolutely grey November days, anointed by a light drizzle.
Across the road a straggling – and unreasonably cheerful – group of people are carrying placards. As they pass the Department of Trade and Industry one sets up the chant: ’What do we want? Trade justice! When do we want it? Now!’
They, and thousands more like them, are converging on the House of Commons for a mass lobby of Members of Parliament (MPs). For several hours, under what becomes a merciless rain, they question, harangue, cajole and persuade their political representatives on the most arcane, complex and, let’s be frank, dreary of subjects – international trade.
It takes me back to a summer’s day several months earlier when some 250,000 people came together in Edinburgh in a bid to get the G8 leaders meeting there to ‘make poverty history’.
There too, along with demands for more aid and for cancellation of Third World debt, was the call for ‘trade justice’.
In the sunny sea of white protest T-shirts and chanting voices I found myself thinking: ‘This sounds fine, but I wonder what they mean by “trade justice”? Are they all talking about the same thing?’
I knew, for example, that two British charities which might appear quite similar in the public’s perception, Christian Aid and Oxfam, had quite different approaches when it came to trade.
Christian Aid had been offering a very robust critique of the damage being done to poorer countries by the prevailing free trade system – even going so far as equating it to slavery. It was calling for some quite radical changes.
Oxfam, on the other hand, was less critical of the free trade system itself and was concentrating on how markets should be made more open to Third World producers so that they could ‘trade their way’ out of poverty.
And yet all those gathered in Edinburgh appeared to be shouting the same slogans.
You could say my journey began there, and was to take in Hong Kong and Bangladesh in my quest to find out what trade justice might be, and how we might get there. It’s a journey that has its own particular obstacles.
First, the acronyms. Start looking into trade and the cursed things will rear up before you. GATS, TRIPs, TRIMs, NAMA, in the first line of defence. Then MFN, NTB, STD, TRQ, the second line of an alphabet army that seems to be saying to the uninitiated – ‘Keep out! Too complex! None of your business!’
Fortunately, growing numbers of people are refusing to be put off. They reckon that how global trade rules work to privilege the rich and disadvantage the world’s poorest people is their business.
But, as I watch the long, slowly moving queue of 8,000 people, each waiting to see their MP, I am still curious as to why this uninviting subject has touched their hearts, their minds, their consciences. They seem such a motley crew – ranging from fresh-faced churchgoers in woolly hats to hardcore radicals clad in black.
‘It’s a colossal unfairness,’ says one woman. ‘We are creating poverty.’
Another who has travelled six hours to get here adds: ‘I can’t live with rich countries doing what they are doing to poor countries without having a say to try and alter it. I think trade is important because it’s the best way a country has of making its own way out of poverty.’
‘I believe in equality,’ says John, from under his hood. ‘Human beings should have the same chance wherever they live. I think it’s important to have a world trading system that reflects that. We all have to trade. We all have to buy food or produce things. It’s a vital part of life.’
An elderly woman is listening attentively as her supremely confident MP – half her age and three times her size – sings the praises of the free market. ‘Yes,’ she finally interjects, pointing her finger like a fencing foil, ‘but it’s not fair, is it!’ He verbally stumbles, momentarily flummoxed.
A group of students who set up a trade justice group in their university explain. ‘It started at school with fair trade products. Through that we began to question things and find out how the international trade system works, and then we started campaigning to try and do something about it.’
The lobbyists are trying to get their MPs to oppose moves to prise open markets in developing countries. But this is part of a broader demand – that international trade rules should be weighted in favour of poor people, not in favour of the rich world and its corporations. Less developed countries should be able to protect their industries and agriculture, not have them undermined by world trade rules.
The subject that seems to get these lobbyists’ blood to the boil most rapidly is subsidies. It’s an issue so steeped in hypocrisy even the most ardent free-marketeers among the MPs gathered here cannot defend it.
‘Human beings should have the same chance wherever they live. I think it’s important to have a world trading system that reflects that’
While proclaiming the virtues of a ‘level playing field’, the richer nations are distorting trade by heavily subsidizing their own producers so that they can dump their agricultural goods on world markets at prices way below what it would cost anyone to produce them.
This shores up agriculture, especially in the European Union or North America, where supermarkets and food corporations have pushed farm-gate prices so low agriculture is unsustainable. The impact on producers in poorer countries is disastrous. India is suddenly flooded with cheap produce, undercutting local supplies. Central American farmers can’t sell their maize because the market is full of dumped US corn. What’s more, the main beneficiaries in the developed countries are not small, struggling, traditional farmers but agribusiness corporations and large landowners. Most of the stupendous $4 billion-a-year cotton subsidies the US has been dishing out went to just 25,000 producers of which 8,000 were agribusiness corporations.
Southern consumers don’t generally benefit either. What is the point of a cheaper pair of jeans if they have cost you your job? To get a sense of scale, US cotton subsidies alone have put in jeopardy the livelihoods of 10 million farmers in Africa.
Subsidies for overproduction in rich countries = $1 billion a day. Agricultural aid to poor countries = $1 billion a year. UNDP, 2005
The million dollar question
A month later, I set off for Portcullis House and a Select Committee Meeting on Trade and Development. Portcullis House is a slightly sinister modern construction of glass and crossed iron beams serving as an overspill building for the House of Commons. Inside its glass-covered courtyard trapped trees grow amid the pervasive waft of bacon and eggs from the ‘Members only’ cafeteria.
Upstairs, along wood-panelled corridors, are the meeting rooms. The Select Committee is to meet in the Thatcher Room. It’s hard to miss; there is a massive portrait of the former leader outside the room – and another one inside as well.
It seems apposite to discuss the world’s current trade regime in a room dedicated to one of the free market’s most passionate advocates. Many of the issues so vexing to civil society groups in the Global South – deregulation of essential services, privatization of water, electricity, telecommunications, healthcare – were pet projects of Margaret Thatcher’s pioneering regime.
What is the point of a cheaper pair of jeans if they have cost you your job?
Thatcher and her followers selectively quoted classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo to back their doctrine of monetarism and free-market liberalism. The secret of greater wealth was simple – open up markets and let them decide who is to sink, who is to swim. Part of its allure was that it appeared to give most power to the consumer; in practice it handed over unprecedented power to corporations.
Now in the hot seats, facing the cross-party Select Committee, are ministers of the ruling Labour Party, Hilary Benn and Ian Pearson. The topic is the 6th Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization soon to begin in Hong Kong. It’s part of the Doha round of trade talks initiated in 2001. In light of mounting evidence that the poorest countries did not seem to be benefiting from the world’s trading system, Doha was declared a ‘development’ round.
The pre-meetings for Hong Kong have been less than inspiring, with rich countries squabbling among themselves as they cling to their trade-distorting practices, or use them as bargaining chips for other things they want, such as greater market access.
And the responses Benn and Pearson provide for the committee are grimly illuminating. Time and again they invoke ‘the difficulty of getting 25 countries [of the now enlarged EU] to reach an agreement’, each wanting to get all it can out of the system.
Maybe this is a little foretaste of the trade talks themselves, as the key rich-world players hold back from taking the leap for development that might make the world’s trading system more equitable.
Finally, the chair of the committee, Malcolm Bruce, asks the million-dollar question: ‘Have we been deceived? Is it possible to have a “development” round?’
He’s not the only person asking.
What some of the baffling acronyms stand for:
AoA Agreement on Agriculture
GATS General Agreement on Trade in Services
LDC Least Developed Country
MEA Multilateral Environmental Agreement
MFN Most Favoured Nation
NAMA Non-Agricultural Market Access
NTBs Non-Tariff Barriers
SPS Sanitary and Phytosanitary (to protect health) Measures
SDT Special and Differential Treatment
TRIMS Trade Related Investment Measures
TRIPS Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
TRQs Tariff Rate Quotas
UNCTAD United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
WTO World Trade Organization
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