Global Policy Forum

Rich Picking


By Tony Juniper

November 7, 2001

Through the clouds of teargas and regiments of armoured policemen, in late 1999 at the Battle of Seattle the dissenters finally got their message across about free trade. Campaigners said that policies to promote what they called corporate globalisation had widened the gap between rich and poor, accelerated environmental damage and created a democratic deficit by transferring awesome political and economic power to multinational corporations.

The protesters' point of view contrasted dramatically with the reassurances of governments who insisted on the need for endless global "growth". But the environment, poverty and labour lobbies prevailed: the talks collapsed - there were no new trade negotiations and the corporations and the rich countries went home from Seattle deeply frustrated. Since then, they have been plotting their counter attack: later this week it will reach its climax.

Governments are gathering again. Cloaked under the fog of war, they meet on Friday in the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar at the fourth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation. The aim of the world's most powerful governments, cheered on by the largest companies, is to kick-start a new round of free trade negotiations. In secure, air-conditioned hotels, they will attempt to get the global liberalisation show back on the road. Off shore, meanwhile, symbolising the deep economic divisions that are increasingly behind international tension, the American sixth fleet will continue with the computer-controlled bombardment of its "medieval" enemy.

On the agenda in Qatar will be all the items unresolved in Seattle. The EU will be keen to open negotiations on investment liberalisation and competition policy, and continue talks that could lead to the removal of protection for public services. The so-called "Cairns Group" will be looking to reduce farm subsidies and further free up the trade in food. No doubt they, along with the US, will also be looking for an opportunity to get international agreement to relax restrictions on trade in GM foods.

The big political prize for the free marketeers will be agreement to start a new round of trade negotiations.

With one eye on the live "war against terrorism" and the other on the resultant psychological recession, the proponents of export-led growth will see an opportunity to sideline those who say that starting a new trade round is unwise. In the midst of the destabilising events of September and October, they argue that the case for stimulating growth by increasing trade is stronger than ever.

The opportunities for civil society to hold governments to account will be seriously limited. Only one representative per non-governmental organisation is being allowed to attend the meeting. Security will be very tight and public demonstrations a non-starter.

The chair country hosting the meeting does not, on past performance, inspire confidence that sustainable development will be high on the agenda. Qatar has not even signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), almost the only treaty where trade and conservation aims are legally enforced through trading measures.

But if the ministers who are meeting on the shores of the Persian Gulf believe they have a popular mandate to start free-trade talks at the expense of the environment, they are dangerously out of touch. Ordinary people everywhere can see that policies to help large companies grow, spread consumerist values and bring free-market economics to the remotest and most vulnerable parts of the world have brought more problems than have been solved. While political leaders press on with more corporate globalisation, the contradictions with their other stated aims grow ever deeper. For example, as governments struggle for a meaningful deal on global warming, about one eighth of the world's oil consumption is used up in moving goods over the growing distances between producers and consumers. A new trade round will make matters worse.

But the increasingly obvious consequences of corporate globalisation have changed public opinion. A Mori poll in late September showed that only one in eight of the more than 2,000 British citizens interviewed believed the official view that globalisation enhances everyone's quality of life. Contrasting with the official push for more liberalisation and freedom for corporations, 92% believed that multinational companies should meet the highest human health, animal welfare and environment standards wherever they are operating. In excess of 80% thought the government should protect the environment and employment even when such action would conflict with the interests of multinationals.

Despite citizens' growing awareness of the issues, the meeting in Qatar has the potential to further continue on the wrong track. With little public scrutiny, the media's attention elsewhere and a sufficient feeling of international crisis to convince even sceptical governments to go along with a new global process, the free traders could get exactly what they want: a new trade round. Once we have embarked on that, goodness knows where it will take us.

Friends of the Earth International has dubbed the Qatar meeting "The Sale of the Century". And it could be. It might turn out to be the final auction of the environment, equality and democracy on the altar of free trade. But it needn't be this way. There is an alternative route, and despite the media's preoccupation with violence, riots and wrongly characterising the campaigners as "anti-globalisation", the few sceptics who do manage to get to Qatar will be putting over a positive message of how international rules could work differently.

Certainly global rules are needed, but instead of helping corporations to do as they please, a set of legal regulations should be negotiated to bind them to the highest standards worldwide. Talks on such a corporate accountability convention could be started next year at the tenth anniversary meeting of the Rio Earth Summit. At the same time, the global treaties on biological diversity, climate change and desertification should be strengthened and agreement reached to give them precedence over so-called free-trade measures.

Since traditional measures of growth do not reflect changes in quality of life, social progress, poverty eradication, human development or environmental sustainability, campaigners will advocate that they be substituted with alternative measures of sustainable economic welfare. Replacing the free-market dogma with measures of what is really being achieved would give societies the information needed to craft fiscal and other measures to help protect the environment and reduce inequalities. Part of the shift towards a sustainable economy will undoubtedly involve a relocalisation of economic strength and a diversion of investment towards real well-being and away from the virtual wealth creation of currency speculation and share-price gambling.

Friends of the Earth International will be in Qatar to say that a greener world would be a safer world. Reducing conflict arising from poverty and competition for resources along with policies that protect diversity and local economies from the vagaries of international crises are the cornerstones of a more secure world. It needs global action to realise such a shift. To that extent, governments must keep talking - but talk about something else.

More Information on the World Trade Organization's Fourth Meeting


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