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Mario, Moore, Rockwell And Me

South Africa

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Mario, Moore, Rockwell and me
So this is it - the headquarters of the WTO in Geneva, where the deals are being done. But there's not much sign of life...
Consensus: Almost everyone agrees without actually saying so. [Almose no-one agrees but dare not say so.]

The gnomes of unscrupulous banking have been confined to Zurich, the unsightly scars of industry banished to Basle. So Switzerland, the country that made its fortune from neutrality in war, can afford to set Geneva aside for peace, with a convention on the humanitarian rules of war named after it.

The WTO believes that it too brings peace to the world. I doubt whether it feels at all out of place on the shores of Lake Geneva, overlooked by the huge Palais des Nations of the UN, from which it conspicuously stands apart. And the setting for its own headquarters is fantastic; in a public park – a trifle inconvenient for ‘security’ – with a quaint little kindergarten to one side, a vista of snow-capped Alps to the other.

My arrival coincides with a routine meeting of the WTO’s General Council: hand-picked delegates from its member states. I expect to find a bustle of traders urgently engaged on the ‘reforms’ I’ve been hearing so much about. But there’s no-one in sight, just a thicket of Mercedes and BMWs with diplomatic plates.

The meeting is already underway in a mirror-clad bunker you enter across a drawbridge over a moat that might well be infested with piranha. Mario, the menacing and totally bald security boss, looks at my visitor’s pass with contempt. It’s no good. I have to return to the Press Office and find another kind of pass, in exchange for my passport.

Once inside, I can glimpse the conference through a door. A lone figure hovers outside it with a notepad. He’s only interested in Yugoslavia, which is trying to join the WTO. He says there’s no-one else from the press here. You can’t get into the conference hall or listen to what’s going on. This is private business. There’s not much point in hanging around.

I retreat to the cafeteria to contemplate my next move. From time to time little bunches of delegates break out of the conference for a smoke. They all wear suits, speak English and are male. Evidently, they don’t expect to encounter anyone but each other. The smokers are joined by other delegates, in search of fresh air no doubt.

One comes and sits quite close to me. I introduce myself. Mr M Supperamaniam, Ambassador to the Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the WTO, apologizes – he does not feel very well. I ask him how he thinks things are going. As well as can be expected, he says. How well is that? Well, not very well at all, as a matter of fact. There’s absolutely no sign of change from the ‘big players’. He heads back a little unsteadily towards the conference hall.

Retselisitsoe Victor Lechesa is Ambassador of the Kingdom of Lesotho to Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the European Union, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. How are things going for him? Well, he’s sorry, but he can’t be too sure. It’s impossible for him to keep track of the WTO as much as he would like. But no, he wouldn’t say countries like his are being consulted much more than before.

There’s someone else I’ve seen, too. Not long ago the NI published a ‘Worldbeater’ featuring – in a rather less than flattering light – the Director General of the WTO, former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore. So I know what he looks like. He doesn’t look very well either. There are dark patches under his eyes.

The cafeteria empties and I’m left almost alone. Then Mike Moore comes out again. He must be a heavy smoker. My requests for an interview with him have met with no response, so I impel myself towards him, ready to duck, with my hand held out. He shakes it as if by instinct and tries to centre his gravity. He says he used to be a subscriber to New Internationalist before it got a bit... strange.

I ask him how things are going. Oh, well enough, he says. Only there’s no bloody security! And he’s only got half a person to deal with non-governmental organizations, when others have got about 80. The trouble is, he says, that NGOs are throwing bricks at the WTO when they don’t understand it. They’re not the only ones, I say. Do I realize, he says, that agricultural subsidies in the rich OECD countries are larger than the entire Gross Domestic Product of Africa? Well, yes I do as a matter of fact – though that may say more about the impoverishment of Africa by free trade than the wealth of subsidies in OECD countries that advocate free trade. He stubs out his cigarette and I thank him for his time.

I abandon the conference centre and go in search of the chief spokesperson for the WTO, Keith Rockwell. His enormous office overlooks Lake Geneva. He is an ebullient North American. I sense that talking to me is a bit of a chore for him.

The WTO is, he says, ‘a place where disputes can be settled in a relatively, er, er...’

‘Amicable?’ I suggest.

‘Generally amicable? Well, I’m searching for the right word... It’s a generally... civilized way of settling disputes. We do have our bananas and beef and things like this. Remember, in the old days you had people going to war over disputes over trade. I mean, basically, going to war!’

I ask him how the WTO works.

‘Well,’ he says, ‘in fits and starts. I would say that at the moment we are in a...’


‘The normal work of the organization is ticking over. You aren’t seeing any frantic bursts of activity. The work is often methodical, because decisions are made by consensus. You need to find some solution to which all parties can agree, or at least none will disagree.’

Does that mean the WTO never actually votes?

‘We have voted on a couple of things...’ he says. ‘I mean, there was discussion about having a vote with respect to the last process of appointing the Director General.’

Mike Moore? There was a split?

‘It was split, but nobody really wanted that. You can imagine, people coming here and saying: “Well, you’re not my DG! I didn’t vote for you!” We really don’t want that. We want this place to be as, er... businesslike, as orderly, as it can be...’

Out to lunch: Mike Moore (right) and chum head for the Orangerie.
Photo: David Ransom

Is the WTO, then, a democratic organization?

‘Well, every decision is taken by governments on the basis of consensus. If you’re talking about rules which are binding, those rules must be ratified by parliaments and congresses. The rules of this organization are inscribed in domestic law in the national governments of our member states. I don’t know how you get much more democratic than that!’

I say that not many people back home seem to be aware of this.

‘I know,’ sighs Keith Rockwell. ‘Well, we say this until we’re blue in the face. Some people choose not to listen, frankly... There are those who think that if this organization had open meetings that a lot of these problems would go away. But before I segue into that, let me tell you something else.’

Whatever it is, it’s obviously bugging him.

‘I mean I, for example,’ he says, ‘was accused by a member of the British Parliament of being on the take!’

‘Good heavens!’ I say.

‘She asked me: “How do I know that you’re not pocketing money from powerful financial institutions to rig the rules of the game in favour of powerful multinational corporations?”

‘So I took her... with me... not by the ear as I would have liked, but out the door. And I said: “Come with me!” I took her into what I believe was the Dispute Settlement Body and said: “Here, look around!” I said: “That man over there is the Ambassador of the European Union. That woman there is the Ambassador of the United States of America. Here is the Ambassador of Japan. Do you actually think that I, as a member of this Secretariat, have any influence over what they do?” I mean, I have no influence at all!’

Why in the hell is he telling me all this? Other than the fact that I’m British, I have absolutely no idea – though I would dearly love to know.

‘Now, whether these institutions have any influence over governments is another matter,’ he continues, ‘and of course they do. But so too do environmentalists. So too do labour unions. So do human-rights activists. It comes down at the end of the day to governments, which are imperfect and perhaps not in all cases as representative as everyone would like. But... c’est la vie!

Well, he’s being a bit disingenuous here. In one famous case, the WTO ruled against measures taken by the US Government to prevent dolphins being caught in tuna fisheries. Trade rules prohibit any consideration of ‘process’ – how things are made. The potential for conflict with international agreements on the environment and human rights is huge and remains to be resolved.

I recount to him my briefing from the official at the Department of Trade and Industry in London and his explanation for the absence of any hard evidence about the performance of the WTO so far. I say I wasn’t unduly impressed by what he had to say.

‘Well, I can see why you would feel that way,’ says Keith Rockwell. ‘And it’s true. It’s extremely difficult to say. You can say, I think, without any qualification, in a general way, that because the rules of the WTO were in place the Asia crisis of 1997 and 1998 was much less devastating than it might have been... We have quite a good example of a financial crisis that became a full-blown economic crisis in 1929...’

I can endure it no longer. Surely, I say, the argument isn’t about what happened during the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression and protectionism in the 1930s – it’s about who or what gets protected now. Isn’t that so?

‘Well, there you go,’ he says.

Using the 1930s in this way rather short-circuits debate, doesn’t he think?

‘You haven’t watched the United States Congress in action, have you! Watch them!’

So the ‘protectionists’ aren’t out there on the streets of Seattle or Prague – they’re in the US Congress?

‘Those countries that liberalize...’ he persists, after a slight pause. ‘And there are numerous studies... There’s the famous Sachs and Warner study, there’s the famous World Bank study of a year-and-a-half ago...’

At this point the interview degenerates. I produce the WTO’s own study, Trade, Income Disparity and Poverty, which features prominently on the WTO’s own website (www.wto.org). This shows, Keith Rockwell is willing to concede, that no-one has the faintest idea what world trade is supposed to do to income disparity and poverty.

‘This study is not the study I’m speaking of,’ he counters. ‘To be very frank with you, since we don’t have the kind of economic firepower of the World Bank, we cannot engage in as much new research as they can. Frankly, I prefer not to comment on this study, because it’s not a study which... Frankly, our economists are not really... We have six economists. I would not measure them by the World Bank.’

It’s not often that you hear a spokesperson disparaging his own report. I am astonished.

‘I mean, this much is for sure,’ he continues. ‘No country has ever been able to climb out of poverty through a system of protectionism. It hasn’t happened.’

Places like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in the years before 1970 – and even Britain and the US while they were establishing their respective empires – spring to mind. But I sense there isn’t much to be gained from saying so out loud. I say he has a point, but only one.

Does he expect a new ‘round’ to be launched at the WTO’s next Ministerial meeting in Qatar this November?

‘Virtually all the members have said at one time or another that they would like to see a new round,’ he says. ‘The difference is, some want some things in and some want other things out... This place shuts down in August and people don’t really come back until the middle of September... Even if we don’t get a new round, there are plenty of other things for us to do.’

Our time is up, the sun is shining, there is lunch to be had. I wander off towards the lake. I see two men walking slowly, deep in conversation. One is tall, excessively elegant, wearing a long, graceful raincoat. The other is in a grey suit, short, a bit squat, bald... Well, if it isn’t Mike Moore! They disappear through the trees. Further along the lakeside is an expensive restaurant – the Orangerie. It might just be worth taking a look... And there, sure enough, is Mike Moore at the plate-glass picture window, seemingly fearless of bricks, surrounded by pokerfaced chums, tucking into a lavish lunch. He’s still there at two-thirty.

No sign of life back at the General Council. At the front gate Mario must have called in a squad of Swiss police officers who are hurriedly bolting down crowd-control barriers. A security alert, a wake-up call of some sort? But there are no anti-globalization trolls in sight. It can’t possibly have been me! Just another little fit at the WTO, no doubt.

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TRIPs - Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights

WTO definition:* ‘Intellectual property rights are the rights given to persons over the creations of their minds. They usually give the creator an exclusive right over the use of his/her creation for a certain period of time.’

WTO explanation:* ‘Creators can be given the right to prevent others from using their inventions, designs or other creations. For example books, paintings and films come under copyright; inventions can be patented; brandnames and product logos can be registered as trademarks.’

NI assessment: Protecting the interests of big biotechnology, pharmaceutical, computer software and other businesses and imposing the cost of policing on cash-strapped governments, while slowing down or preventing altogether the transfer of useful technology.

Source:Carlos M Correa, Intellectual Property Rights, the WHO & Developing Countries,Zed Books, London,2000.
* From WTO website: www.wto.org

TRIPping up the poor
Cut from the negotiating rooms of the World Trade Organization – even from the streets of protest in Seattle – to a balmy summer evening in Pretoria, where activists stick rude posters of local Glaxo Smith Kline chief John Kearney onto boards. Members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions are preparing to do battle with 42 transnational pharmaceutical companies.

These companies are taking the South African Government to court to prevent it passing a decent law. The Medicines and Related Substances Act would set up a legal framework for parallel imports of patented medicines from countries where these are sold more cheaply. It will also provide for the mass use of generic drugs and establish some measure of price controls to ensure that they are not beyond the reach of most people. It would give government a legal means of opting out of TRIPs by using the clause that provides for waivers when there is a national emergency.

Of course, if South Africa passed the law it might be copied by other developing countries. Hence the unprecedented class action by the phalanx of transnational corporations.

Ultra-cool Pholokgolo Ramothwala is the 22-year-old co-ordinator for TAC. In a cutting-edge orange shirt with grey cargo pants, he’s HIV-positive, the most stylish activist around and directing where and how posters are put up.

He is a symbol of a South African nightmare in the making: and with half the population aged under 18 years old, Aids threatens to snuff out a generation. But Pholokgolo’s still healthy. Eight months after hiding his status and living the life of a recluse, he met TAC leader Zachie Achmat and quickly learned that his future was bleak. Even on medical aid, he wouldn’t be able to afford the drugs that would allow him to see in his thirties.

‘The blood tests and viral-load counts alone cost more than $100 every time,’ he says. ‘Then I have to do CD4 counts and buy all my vitamins.’

It would cost him between $450 and $580 a month to go on the triple cocktails that have downgraded Aids from a terminal to a manageable disease in the developed world. Pholokgolo earns $500 a month – and is deemed upper-middle class.

Every day, he says, people die around him because they cannot get the drugs they need to keep them alive. He was part of a TAC defiance campaign that brought in generic drugs to treat early Aids-related diseases. The activists distributed the drugs to those hospitals that were willing to dispense them and he uses these networks to help those he counsels.

‘Three weeks ago a guy came to me. He had thrush. I got Biozol for him and now he’s fine.’ Not so lucky was the man from Mozambique. Pholokgolo tried for three days to get him the same drug. The man died on the fourth day.

When court day arrives, Sindiswa Godwana confidently takes her seat. The 31-year-old woman wears a purple T-shirt, like the protesters who fill the court. It declares her status: HIV-positive and coping. A picture of empowerment and health, she had earlier led the march, lustily singing her message of access to drugs before profits.

She’s a far cry from the young woman who, in October 1999, walked into the wooden house in Filipi, Cape Town, sat down and sobbed. Two days earlier, Sindiswa’s 34-year-old boyfriend had come home bewildered by the revelation that he had mpembekulu – Xhosa for ‘the big thing’, and a term that has come to signify Aids in a country where the dread disease is spoken about only in whispers. ‘I empowered him and told him that HIV wasn’t a death sentence,’ says Sindiswa Godwana.

At a support group at the Conradie Hospital, where her own status had first been revealed, Sindiswa found some solace. Conradie doesn’t provide anti-retroviral drugs, but support workers have taught her how to prevent illness.

‘Ginger is excellent for flu. Garlic strengthens the immune system,’ she says. She reels off the prices and names of tongue-twister patent drugs and their generics. ‘Diflucan’s very expensive and flucanazol is cheap. If you’ve got thrush, these drugs can help.’

She reels off, too, the names of friends who have died of Aids because they couldn’t afford the drugs. ‘Christoper Moraka died of thrush and crypotcocchal meningitis. What he needed was flucanazol and AZT,’ says Sindiswa about her friend, another young activist who succumbed last year.

The debate on patent protection, exemplified by TRIPs, has been dragged from Geneva to the streets of South Africa. aids has brought the arguments into sharp focus, simplifying the language, stripping it of the legal jargon that can so often provide legitimacy. Plainly, it’s a matter of life and death now.

Across from where Sindiswa sits in court, sit the owners of a remedy who say she may not have it because she cannot pay for it.

Ferial Haffajee in Pretoria / InterPress Service

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The Agriculture Agreement

WTO definition:* ‘Includes specific commitments by WTO member governments to improve market access and reduce trade-distorting subsidies.’

WTO explanation:* ‘The original GATT did apply to agricultural trade, but it contained loopholes. For example, it allowed countries to use some non-tariff measures such as import quotas, and to subsidize.’

NI assessment: The worst rip-off of the lot, affecting a vast number of poor people and small farmers around the world. Poor countries are not permitted – and have no resources – to support small farmers but must be open to subsidized imports. Rich countries – and particularly the European Union – continue to subsidize farmers and exports while restricting imports. Governments have an inescapable responsibility for domestic ‘food security’. Subsidized food exports are quite another matter. ‘Free’ trade promotes food insecurity in hungry countries, which often have nothing other than agricultural commodities to export to rich countries.

Source:World Trade Statistics 2000, WTO
* From WTO website: www.wto.org

Where there are no subsidies
They wake with the first grey light of dawn. It’s a ten-kilometre trek to the coffee plantations and competition for work at the farm is high. If they fail to report by 7.00am, the farm supervisors will turn them away.

Mary Njoroge, 12, started working as a coffee picker when she was just nine. She is one of hundreds of child labourers in the Mount Kenya region. Some are orphans. Most were pushed into the labour market by their desperate parents. Mary was forced into coffee picking in the plantations on the outskirts of Nyeri town. She is one of the lucky ones. She goes to school and only works in the holidays and at weekends.

Working alongside her is 13-year-old Dominic Ruheni. He works full-time. Dominic’s father, a watchman at the local shopping centre, urged him to join other children in the plantations. ‘We had to get something to eat,’ says Dominic. So he quit school.

The children work, barefoot under the hot sun, until 4.00pm. ‘The supervisors are very harsh to us,’ says Mary. ‘Occasionally they thrash us when we drop berries while picking coffee. There is no mercy.’

The children say they do not have time to stop and eat. ‘I only have one meal a day and that’s dinner at home,’ says Dominic.

Some food is available, but Mary says she cannot afford to buy it. ‘If you have money, you can buy bread and squash from the vendors during the lunch hour. But money is the problem and that’s why we are here,’ she says.

At 4.00pm the supervisors weigh each child’s pickings. For each 20-litre container the children receive about $0.50. With just over an hour’s daylight left, the exhausted children trek back home. It is already dark by the time they arrive.

‘I usually surrender the whole pay packet to my mother. It’s a pity that she takes everything, leaving me with nothing. But I don’t complain. She’s my mother,’ says Mary. ‘I sympathize with her when I see her struggling to get food for the family.’

Some four million Kenyan children endure this exploitation. An estimated 40 per cent of 6 to 16 year-olds are in paid employment. Many work in coffee, tea, pineapple, sugarcane and sisal plantations. While these food stuffs are being shipped out of the country, four million Kenyans are facing starvation.

Katy Salmon in Nairobi / InterPress Service

Export or die: hungry children pick coffee in Kenya.
Ron Gilling / Still Pictures

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