What's Wrong With the Oxfam Trade Campaign


By Walden Bello

Focus on the Global South
April 26, 2002

Oxfam International recently launched a global campaign to promote wider access for developing country products in northern markets.

I have a lot of respect for Oxfam, and I do agree with many things in the Oxfam report, but I feel that it provides the wrong focus and wrong direction for the movement against corporate-driven globalization during this critical period.

First of all, the focus on market access misleads people into believing that it is access to the markets of the North that is the central need and central problem of the global trading system. Far from it. The central problem is the paradigm of free trade that the World Trade Organization is relentlessly imposing on the global trading system. Reduced market access for Southern products and agricultural subsidies do pose problems for the Southern economies, but far more destructive are the measures of indisciminate liberalization of trade--in industry, services, and agriculture--that the WTO is pushing. The so-called new issues--or efforts by the WTO to liberalize and gain control over investment, competition policy, government procurement, and trade facilitation--are the cutting edge of the current WTO drive to put free trade uber alles, as Ralph Nader says, and opposition to them should be the main thrust of international civil society'

Second, the market access focus does, as Food First noted in its response to the Oxfam Report, promote the paradigm of export-oriented growth, since it is monopolistic export agricultural interests that will be the main beneficiaries of greater agricultural market access to northern markets. Even in the case of staple foods like rice and corn, it is not small farmers that benefit but big middlemen. A focus on market access for agricultural products from the South in the North will also increase pressures on developing countries to open up their markets as the quid pro quo for the accelerated opening of markets in the North. Thus, this strategy simply undermines the effort of many small-holder-based agrarian movements in the South to reorient production from export agriculture based on big landed and corporate interests to small-farmer based production systems producing principally for the local market and protected by tariffs and quotas from unfair competition by subsidized products dumped by the Northern countries.

To be fair, Oxfam does say it is concerned about the future of smallholder-based agrarian systems in its report, and I do believe it sincerely is. However, the thrust of its campaign on market access in the North undermines this concern.

Market access as a central thrust in the effort to reform the world trading system is not being pushed by any developing country or developing country grouping. As far as I know, it is mainly being pushed by the Cairns Group, and within the Cairns Group by the trio of Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. Indeed, leading officials in both the Philippines and Indonesia, are now talking about taking their countries out of the Cairns Group, partly because they feel that the agenda has been hijacked by those members obsessed with the market access issue. It is incongruous that Oxfam has emerged as a civil society advocate for the Cairns Group position.

The Washington Post has suggested that Oxfam's market access focus indicates that Oxfam has joined the free market camp. We not agree. At the same time, the Post's misperception is perfectly understandable given the Oxfam focus on market access as the evil to be flayed.

The problem we face is a comprehensive one--a determined effort to impose a neo-liberal trading order by an organization that is unrepresentative, undemocratic, non-transparent, and dominated by the trading superpowers. Supporting the efforts of developing country governments and civil society movements to stop this steamroller by bringing up the implementation agenda, exposing the decision-making structure, supporting food sovereignty, and stopping the extension of WTO jurisdiction over the new issues should be the content and thrust of a campaign by international civil society groups. To its credit, the South-North "Our World Is Not For Sale Campaign" has adopted this stance. I would recommend that Oxfam take the same route.

It is also unfortunate that in its report, Oxfam branded a large sector of the movement against corporate-driven globalization as "globaphobes." This sort of name-calling is not helpful. In fact, it has been the so-called "globaphobes" that have created the dynamic movement that has shaken the international financial and trade institutions and forced them to listen to the views of organizations like Oxfam. It would be nice if Oxfam acknowledged this instead of promoting caricatures of others in the movement against corporate-driven globalization.

I am sorry to have to differ publicly with Oxfam on this issue, especially since I have a great deal of respect for its humanitarian and development work. But it is only via debate and dialogue among partners and allies that we can chart a solid path forward.

More Information on the World Trade Organization

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.