Global Policy Forum

Balancing Trade Rules, the Environment and Sustainable Development


By Akwe Amosu

February 1, 2003

Some parts of the international business community are beginning to sound like development agencies. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland in late January and at the World Summit on Sustainable Development last September there was much discussion of the importance of environmentally sound policies and of "partnerships" to ensure that the benefits of economic globalisation flow to all parts of society.

Governments recognize that at a time when overseas development aid is declining, these types of public-private partnerships are one of the few mechanisms for attracting needed dollars for development projects. This is, they argue, one of the positive consequences of globalisation. But critics point out that the past experience with corporate globalisation has not always been positive.

"It is not without reason that in many minds, in rich and poor countries, the word globalization conjures up ugly images of job losses, uncertainties about the future and threats to people's welfare and accustomed ways of life," acknowledged Tanzanian President Benjamin William Mkapa during one of the sessions at the Davos meeting. Mkapa, who is chairman of a group established by the World Economic Forum to discuss the social dimension of globalisation, added that government and business share common values and need to work to ensure that "we succeed to globalise wealth, rather than globalise poverty."

But others argue that the track record of corporate dominated globalisation is already so negative that more controls must be put in place to ensure these development projects help all the people, not just a small elite. While the corporate and government leaders were meeting in Davos, a separate group of some 40,000 trade union, church, environmental and civil society activists were holding their own social forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. There was also substantial participation from African groups at this meeting.

While some government officials in Africa agree with President Mkapa, there are also other voices questioning the political agenda of business groups and the governments that advance them. Are the economic policies advanced at Davos or the trade policies advanced at the World Trade Organization compatible with the desires of African governments to organize a sustainable, ecologically stable development path for their countries?

These debates were particularly heated during the World Summit on Sustainable Development last September.

AllAfrica's Akwe Amosu probed these issues with Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, the General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia. Although not technically a government minister, Tewolde Berhan reports directly to parliament and the prime minister, and represents Ethiopia internationally on environmental issues.

In the past year, the private sector has "moved in" to sustainable development in a big way and seems likely to have a major impact on the future course of environmental and development policies. How do you feel about that?

It's not the private sector, it's the U.S. government! The U.S. government is the private sector.

I woke up to this fact when I heard an interview with Gore Vidal. He stated what I had felt: that to be in power in the United States, you had to be a corporate head or to be pushed through, supported, paid for by the corporations. Ordinary people cannot just get into power, so U.S. power means corporate power.

Corporate power, because of the U.S., is now very strong. What do we feel about it? I think everybody more or less feels resigned. The only way is to accommodate them. But of course we would like, as much as possible, corporations to be ruled by clear, transparent rules, well-defined, well-identified rules, so they don't become high-handed.

Corporations are many. Dealing with one government alone is often difficult. When you have many corporations making decisions, replacing a state, the confusion internally is going to be massive. If you look at it globally, it's going to be impossible. So corporate rule is unacceptable and corporations have to function like all other legal individuals, under certain, specified laws.

But the corporations say, "we don't have a political mandate. You cannot hold us accountable because we never made any pledges. If we want to help improve somebody's water system, it's of our own free will; you cannot oblige or control us."

That's what I mean. If they want to help improve the water system, nobody would object to that. It is when they make decisions. I am told it is the pharmaceutical companies that drafted the TRIPS agreements, the agreements on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights for the World Trade Organization. It is when they do these things that they interfere with governance.

So they play a political role without ostensibly being political?


They do bring a lot of resources to the table though. We are told they are going to pour millions of dollars into development and the environment that wouldn't otherwise have been available.

Yes, that is true. For the other side of the coin, ask Argentina; ask the Asian tigers. They also take out a hell of a lot of money. When the atmosphere is good a lot of money may come in; when a blip occurs, money flows out.

Stability, sustainability, is not really fostered by such conditions. And the fact that corporations are global, fluid, and geographically difficult to pin down means that we either need one global government - which we don't have - to regulate them or there should be transparent laws, internationally agreed, that will govern their activities.

After all, as a human being, if I pat you on the back, no problem. If I kill you, I should be killed. There's a limit to whatever any individual does. Why don't we make the same rules for corporations, after all? We saw what happened in the U.S. itself - so many corporations doing things wrong; we need rules.

Many of the issues that were discussed in Davos and Porto Alegre were also at the heart of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg - where the private sector really climbed up the agenda. You were there, in fact the Ethiopian delegation which you led played a key role. What's your evaluation of the Summit?

The Rio summit [in 1992] came as a consequence of the collapse of the Cold War and a line of thinking throughout the world was that what was being spent on the Cold War could now be reoriented to be used for development, betterment of human life - so environmental protection, the fight against poverty, moves towards equity, a better world for the future, including solving our climate change problems, ozone layer problems, biodiversity loss problems, all of these.

Then two years after 1992, there was another agreement in which the focus was trade, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which meant that the rich and the powerful needed a global game and they got it. Now the rich and the poor are usually - in fact always - antagonistic. So what is made for the rich alone usually hurts the poor, and what is made to help the poor usually infringes upon what the rich call their own.

Now the world has managed to keep these two trends apart, but the need to harmonize them became strongly felt in Seattle, and hence the Doha meeting on WTO, accepted the need. The World Summit on Sustainable Development was the first meeting of the Rio Process to come to terms with the creation of the WTO and trade laws.

To that extent the problems we have had were inevitable, compromises are inevitable, the clear vision of Rio is being fudged, and that also is inevitable. It depends very much on follow-up processes; if now we try to apportion certain energy, certain resources to trade and certain resources to poverty alleviation, we could still move towards a globally trading world that is moving toward equity.

But the fight in Johannesburg was to have the trade rules be supreme over the environment and the pro-poor rules, especially pro-rural, pro-poor rules. That has been the fight. Inevitably, therefore, those who came through Rio were on the defensive. We were all on the defensive. All our energies were on damage-limitation rather than pushing Rio forward.

So would you say that the trade or WTO lobby - as it were - won that battle at the WSSD? That it won the battle to be the primary prism through which everything else should be seen?

No, I don't think it won the battle. I don't think it's a matter of winning a battle. I think these two trends will continue fighting throughout. And it is a matter of what we do constantly. It will require a constant vigil on both sides.

No doubt the trade lobby will want to dominate, no doubt the environment and the equity lobby will continue to fight back. There hasn't been a real major loss now.

The only paragraph [in the final declaration from the WSSD] that is being considered as a loss is the one that supports the Doha plan of action which aimed at harmonizing trade and the environment. It will depend very much on what happens there. If it is left only to trade negotiators, and they come up with their own version of harmonization, and the world accepts it and everything settles there, it will be a disaster.

But, number one, I don't think they are so unrealistic. They know the world's divisions exist in each country, the wishes are split between the two. So my expectation is that if they are serious about having a functional trade system that will work into the future, they will pay attention to the other side.

Also, should they fail to do so, then the outcome of Doha will be rejected, as the outcome of Singapore was rejected in Seattle.

People in the civil society groups in Johannesburg expressed great disappointment about the lack of forward movement at the WSSD meeting, but they spoke very warmly of Ethiopia's role in the negotiations. Why is that?

We were not involved early on in the negotiations. That was our own problem - it is expensive, we are a poor country, and I wasn't enjoying full health; but we came in later, in relative force. There were five of us in the negotiations, and we were following all that was happening.

There were two main issues that really worried us. One was an open statement that openly says "Environment and trade should be harmonized but in a process that is compliant with the WTO agreements". And the G77, feeling that this was going to protect our trading capabilities, had gone for it.

The United States wanted it, Australia wanted it, Europe was divided, Norway was really opposing it and I felt it was a terrible thing, not only because of the environmental issue, but also because of poverty.

As I pointed out earlier, trade disregards the poor. But a number of the agreements reached in Rio are pro-poor. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) protects the rights of the rural poor. And Agenda 21 has many sections which, if implemented, would have helped.

Therefore we had to fight it, on the environmental grounds, but also on national interests grounds, on survival grounds. And we tried to convince the G77 from within. It was not possible; on the Sunday night, when it all came out in the open and the negotiations were to be finalized, we had to openly oppose them.

I explained that I was speaking with a lot of pain because I don't want to break unity, strength lies in unity; but strength is good when the cause is right. When the cause is wrong, strength is dangerous. So, I said, for this reason, because I think we are wrong, I am forced to break the unity and I explained why. I said that the only protection the rural poor have comes from the CBD, and if we make the CBD subordinate to the WTO agreement, that will be erased. And I don't know whether that speech changed the whole situation.

What happened after that?

After that, to my great surprise, the spokesperson from Venezuela raises his flag and said "Yes, we withdraw that statement that says "WTO compliant". Canada supported too, which was really a surprise to me. Of course, Norway supported me very strongly. Europe had been divided and silent; apparently the French were against - the French were more for WTO being supreme. But then the Danish spokesperson openly supported the deletion of that clause, and that was the end of it.

The most surprising thing for me was the United States and Australia not objecting. They just shut up, which was fantastic, and that was removed.

Then the second issue: there was another happening, on corporate governance and responsibility and accountability. There is a statement that says that there will be an international agreement that will be made to ensure corporate responsibility and accountability. And we thought that was finished.

But somehow somebody convinced the chairman of the Contact Group to make a statement to the effect that the Contact Group's view is that the statement applies only to existing laws, not to new ones. And I pointed out that the agreed text says; "develop internationally" - you don't develop what already exists so the agreed text is intended to be for the future and they were saying it's only for the past. I told them that the two cannot meet; either your statement is wrong or what we have agreed is wrong. One of them has to change.

Finally Norway also intervened, saying that Contact Groups do not have a legal identity in the UN system. They cannot make any formal statement, so that statement is invalid. So it was erased.

It was for these two things that the NGOs were talking a lot about us. But we did it because we feel strongly about it nationally. The only thing is, I wish that we had enough strength to start [our intervention] earlier.

If you had to give a list of victories won at the summit, could you give such a list? I suppose I could. Renewable energy is in the plans for the first time, weak, but in. Sanitation is in as an important issue to pursue. I think that is all, really. But as I said earlier, it is inevitable that this summit became a forum for a clash between trade and the environment, and maybe victories for trade outweigh a little bit, but I think environment has also survived as an issue.

What about defeats, things that you feel very disappointed about?

Well, maybe I wouldn't call it defeat. Maybe disappointment is a better term. In Rio, there was a reaffirmation by the industrialized countries, the developed countries that they would help to the tune 0.7 percent of their annual GDP to develop, to support developing countries in their development efforts and in their environmental protection efforts. I think it was 0.5 percent at that time. Now it is about 0.225 or some ridiculous amount like that. It seems to be decreasing.

It shows really that a united struggle to improve the world is only lip service now. The big problem is hindrance of the poor when they try to improve themselves. That's the fight now, not to get more resources, but to maintain more room. And that is difficult enough. And it was made very difficult by the trade issues coming in through the WTO.

As a key member of the Southern nations, how does Ethiopia react to those who say that the poor countries should pull out of these international meetings? They complain that the African nations attend but they are always weak, always powerless, and get railroaded into things that they don't want to do.

What choice do we have? There are only two options. Either you influence things or you oppose them. If we oppose them, how do we oppose them? With fingernails? The tanks? The nuclear weapons all are on one side!

This is a unipolar world where money and power are concentrated and unless you are a fool, or fully prepared, you don't challenge the system. You try to work within it and really you can effect some changes within.

The reason you can do that is that even those in power pay ideological lip service to democracy and participation. You hold them to ransom through effective participation. If you effectively participate and insist on helping shape global policy they have no choice; the choice is either to kick you out or to accommodate you. They don't dare kick you out because that is undermining themselves.

We can, I think, be more effective by defining clearly what we want and getting on with it from within the system in the present unipolar world than by making a direct challenge.

However, if, for example, NGOs say, "this is so undemocratic, we are boycotting it," that is applying pressure through the normal channels. I don't consider that breaking with the norms. It is only when you say "this is hopeless"; if my government says we will not participate in the UN system, either we get isolated or even more useless, or we have to attack and defeat the establishment which is impossible, which just cannot be.




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