After its Hong Kong summit, at which thousands of people demonstrated and fought with riot police SchNEWS examines the differences between the WTO’s words and its practices.
“The rhetoric of the WTO [World Trade Organisation] may be free trade, but its key agreements promote corporate monopoly.” - Walden Bello, Focus on the Global South
Another World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference has happened, in Hong Kong, and again the fat-cats of the world promised once again to eradicate poverty, and it can’t be long before we are all living in their neoliberal utopia. Armed with their new ‘Doha Development agenda’ we can look forward to fairer trade and an altogether more caring, compassionate and cuddlier kind of capitalism for the new millennium. Or have we heard all this bullshit before?
The argument goes that trade is the best way out of poverty. This is how it worked for us, after all (if you leave aside the 500 year history of slavery and imperialism, of course). We even offer the poorest nations loans to help them onto their feet. Oh, except that the loans come with strings and are nothing more than the thin end of a new colonial wedge. The poorest of the poor are forced to sell what public-owned infrastructure they have to Western corporates who then jack up the price and bleed them dry.
Western economists stress that countries will prosper by using their ‘comparative advantage’ in world trade. In other words, each country is encouraged to give up everything to Western Plcs and concentrate on what it does best - provide cheap labour for sweatshops producing the cheap goods to fuel the disposable consumer orgy societies of the West.
Still, these are just the growing pains of a necessary transition to neoliberalism, say corporate bosses and their G8 lapdogs. If you wait, you’ll get richer. It’s an argument that’s been spinning around since the 1960s; only problem is the poorest countries have only been getting poorer. After 20 years of structural adjustment the gulf between rich and poor is greater than in 1985. In their report ‘The Economics of Failure: The Real Cost of Free Trade for Poor Countries’, Christian Aid estimate the damage done to African countries by trade liberalisation since 1980 to be $272 billion. “Had they not been forced to liberalise as the price of aid, loans and debt relief, sub-Saharan African countries would have had enough extra income to wipe out their debts and have sufficient left over to pay for every child to be vaccinated and go to school.”
Number One Super Guys
And to top it all the rich countries got rich precisely because they did the opposite to the laws they are now laying down through the WTO! Take free trade, something all Western powers fought vigorously against throughout most of the past 400 years. England protected its textile industry by heavily taxing imports and subsidising industry. This helped fuel an economic boom and shot the country into the Industrial Revolution and a position of global dominance. Today the West still keeps its protection barriers up, with massive subsidies to the agricultural and technological sectors, something which is made effectively illegal for poor nations. Our farmers are paid not to grow food, so food prices are kept artificially high and profits buoyant. With ‘defence’ spending tax payers give a boost to the IT and other technology industries, just one of the many factors which helps make war such a profitable venture.
Whilst the world economy grows at around 2% per year, the transnational corporations expand by five times that amount. The ten largest corporations are worth £400 billion, more than the one hundred smallest countries. The assets of the 84 richest people in the world exceed the Gross Domestic Product of China, which has 1.2 billion inhabitants. A tiny minority of super-wealthy people are consistently acting against the interests of the majority of the world’s population and concentrating their wealth in fewer and fewer hands. At Hong Kong there’ll be some debt relief for Africa, providing the countries in question play ball of course. A reduction in barriers to trade for the West will be lauded as a victory for the poor, but it’ll just mean that more skint countries will be laying themselves open to economic exploitation.
But at least the leaders of poor countries know now that it’s all a con. At another WTO meet up back in Cancun in 2003 (see SchNEWS 423), the conference ended in stalemate as poorer nations refused to accept to the G8 spin. The WTO had murmured some crap about being nicer to the poor after the UN set up their Millennium Development Goals back in 2000, which included a promise to half world hunger by 2015. Responding to pressure, the WTO organised a ‘Development’ round of talks in Doha in 2001 and agreed to take some positive action. But as South East trade union organiser Hidayat Greenfield puts it “It’s fitting that the Sixth WTO Ministerial should arrive in Hong Kong only a couple of months after the opening of Disneyland. In both cases reality is abandoned at the door, while fiction and fantasy take over. The magical Doha ‘Development’ Round promises an end to global poverty and a new prosperity for all -- based on an agenda that boosts transnational corporate power and demolishes the remnants of political and social barriers to corporate profit. Like a rollercoaster ride through a fictional world, we set off to alleviate global poverty and arrive at greater impoverishment as the destination. At least in Disneyland the fiction and fantasy ends when you leave.” Waldon Bello sees the fantasy this way: “The WTO is like a Dracula... we really need to drive a stake through the heart of this vampire and finish it off. Permanently.”
:> Hong Kong: Hundreds fight police against global trade rules
:> The Hong Kong People’s Alliance on the WTO http://daga.dhs.org/hkpa
:> Action Aid ‘Trade Invaders: the WTO and Developing Countries’ 01460 238000 www.actionaid.org.uk
:> Recommended reading: www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=13&ItemID=9164