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Why? Because for the first time in decades of globalization negotiations, democracy trumped narrow elite interests.

India, Brazil, China and nearly two dozen other poor nations, representing more than half of the globe’s population, negotiated as a bloc. With backing from a wide array of citizen groups, they rejected the meeting’s final text which, as usual, was crafted to address the corporate interests of richer nations. In short, the many derailed a trade agenda for the few.

A number of these poor country governments, which came to be known as the Group of 21, were responding to strong campaigns from citizen groups in their countries for a dramatic shift in the globalization agenda. The two of us spent the summer crisscrossing one of these nations, the Philippines, as small-scale farmers, workers, and anti-poverty activists pressed their government to stand up for their interests at the WTO summit.

Their message to the Philippine government was simple, and it was aimed at
the heart of the WTO agenda:
Don’t let Cargill and other giant agribusiness firms from rich nations use their government’s lavish farm subsidies to dump their corn, rice and wheat on our markets at low prices that displace millions of peasant farmers.
In the era of Enron and WorldCom, don’t give in to U.S. government and corporate demands that vital public services like health care, education and water be offered for sale to those same global firms.
Don’t agree to new negotiations that will further handcuff governments’ ability to choose to steer incentives away from foreign firms toward smaller, locally-based domestic firms.

We met up with these Filipino activists again at the Mexican WTO summit as they were joined by an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 protesters from across Mexico and the rest of the world. Barricades manned by thousands of Mexican police prevented most of the protesters from getting within miles of their government’s negotiators, who were holed up in some of the world’s most luxurious hotels to discuss what WTO negotiators brazenly called a “development agenda.”

Deeply frustrated by the metal barricades and the unfair rules they protected, a South Korean farmer, Lee Kyung Hae, plunged a knife into his chest on the meetings’ opening day.

Lee took his life to dramatize, in his own words, that “multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO members are leading an undesirable globalization [that is] inhumane, environmentally distorting, farmer-killing and undemocratic.”

His suicide note lamented the dumping of subsidized food in poorer countries such as South Korea by global corporations based in wealthier countries. He asked for a global trade system that would allow poor countries to offer adequate protection to their farmers.

The flashpoint of the WTO meeting was agriculture, but the democratic revolt was about far more. The developing countriesÂ’ negotiators in the suites and protesters in the streets were rejecting the “one-size fits all” development model of the WTO that is a relic of the bygone Reagan era. Financier George Soros characterizes that model as “market fundamentalism.”

By derailing the failed globalization agenda of the WTO, these poor countries and an increasingly restless global public are not rejecting the necessity of global rules on trade and investment. To the contrary, proposals abound for replacing the obsolete WTO approach with fairer rules and institutions.

For example, citizen leaders under the auspices of the International Forum on Globalization have proposed rules that allow governments to put legitimate checks and balances on trade and investment to meet national goals – so Mexico could protect its corn farmers and South Korea and Japan could protect their rice farmers as vital to their culture. Such new rules would shift the priority from increasing trade and investment at all costs to creating a framework that steers these economic flows to build healthy communities, dignified work, and a clean environment.

Now the real debate begins.

John Cavanagh directs the Institute for Policy Studies and co-authored Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World is Possible (Berrett-Koehler, 2002). Robin Broad, a professor of development at American University, is the author of Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).