The number of people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia living on $1 a day or less leapt from seven million to 24 million from 1990 to 1998. That is the backdrop to the conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the Gulf state of Qatar next week.
The WTO is one of the key institutions of global capitalism, alongside the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Those who defend these institutions claim that ‘free trade’, ‘globalisation’ and neo-liberal economic policies have made life better for people.
New Labour minister Clare Short argues, ‘The benefits of globalisation for poorer countries and people substantially outweigh the costs, [and it] has helped lift millions of people out of poverty.’ Yet from 1990 to 1998 the numbers of people living on less than $1 a day increased by four million people in Latin America, 27 million in South Asia and 49 million in sub-Saharan Africa.
The reality of what globalisation means inspired a huge demonstration outside the WTO’s last gathering, in Seattle in 1999. The conference collapsed amid the 30,000-strong demonstration that signalled the birth of the global anti-capitalist movement. World leaders still fear that movement, which is why they are holding next week’s meeting in Qatar, where protest is all but impossible.
Qatar was part of the British Empire for 150 years until 1971. The country is the personal fiefdom of the super-rich Al Thani family. The ruler, Sheikh Hamad, seized power when he led a 1995 coup against his father. Such lack of democracy and rule by a tiny elite are an apt setting for the WTO. Its conference is about enshrining the global domination of the wealthy. Protests
As Pierre Sane, general secretary of Amnesty International, says, ‘Globalisation has meant riches for some, and ruin and despair for the majority.’ In more than 80 countries, he argues, income per inhabitant in the year 2000 was less than it was in 1990, and ‘at least 300 million human beings now have to try and survive on less than $1 a day’.
People like Clare Short claim that those who oppose bodies like the WTO are a privileged minority in the richer countries. In fact many of the biggest protests against such bodies and their policies have been in Africa, in India, and across Latin America. A group of grassroots organisations from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka met recently in Malabe in Sri Lanka.
The group argued that the WTO ‘reinforces the exploitative economic, social and political structures that have emerged from Structural Adjustment Programmes implemented by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank’. The New Internationalist magazine points out that on 11 September, the day of the World Trade Centre attacks, over 6,000 children died from diarrhoea. But the IMF and World Bank demand cuts in health programmes, so that money from the world’s poorest countries can be funnelled to the bankers instead. That horror is why people across the world will be protesting again next week against the WTO and the world order that it symbolises.
The World Trade Organisation was set up in 1995 to push for neo-liberal economic policies across the world. It can give states the go-ahead to impose sanctions against any country that stands in the way of its ‘free trade’ rules. Multinational corporations control 70 percent of a world trade now worth £11.5 billion a day. Yet WTO rules don’t deal with regulating those corporations. Instead they restrict what governments can do to stand in their way. Defenders of the WTO argue that the 142 member countries can vote to change the rules.
But the WTO rarely votes. Most decisions are taken in ‘Green Room’ discussions which involve the world’s most powerful countries, along with heavy lobbying from global corporations. The three-member WTO panel which rules on trade disputes is effectively controlled by the richest countries and the multinationals.
Its decisions can only be overruled if ALL 142 countries vote against them. In the run-up to the Qatar meeting the US and EU have temporarily shelved important differences over agriculture to push through areas they agree on. These include a series of agreements known by their initials:
GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) is about opening up public services to privatisation.
TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) also mean opening countries up to multinationals.
The US and EU have used them to force India to allow car giants like Ford and General Motors freer access to the country.
TRIMS (Trade Related Investment Measures) are the way that drug companies want to stop poor countries making cheap drugs to treat AIDS.
‘In Nicaragua coffee pickers with malnourished children beg for food at the roadside. From Mexico to Brazil tens of thousands of rural labourers have been aid off, swelling the peripheries of the cities in a desperate search for work. The continuing slump in the price of coffee is spreading misery across the region. A glut, caused partly by surging production in Vietnam, has led to sliding prices causing hardship for growers on a scale unseen for three decades.’ The description is not from some critic of global capitalism, but from the Economist, a champion of neo-liberalism.
Coffee is the world’s second most valuable traded commodity after oil. Many poor countries were told by the World Bank and IMF to produce coffee for export to earn cash to pay debts to global bankers. The result has been to throw ever more coffee onto the market, bringing about a collapse in prices.
There is not ‘too much coffee’. In Third World countries like much of Latin America and the Middle East people would like to drink the coffee they produce, but they are too poor to buy it.
In Nicaragua in the 1980s George Bush’s gang waged a war against the popular Sandinista regime.
The US said it would not walk away when the war was over, the same claim that New Labour ministers make today about the US war in Afghanistan. But since the war ended 12 years ago, debt and the insanity of world capitalism mean people are on the edge of starvation.
Clare Short, New Labour’s international development secretary, argues that if poor countries produced more manufactured goods for export it would lift them out of poverty.
But this is not true. One study has found, ‘Since the mid-1980s we have seen an emerging trend for the terms of trade of a range of manufactured exports, especially those produced by developing countries, to decline. ‘The decline coincided with China’s entry into global markets.’ The result is a global phenomenon the same study calls ‘immiserising growth’-more and more is produced but people get poorer at the same time.
Trade Justice Parade
Saturday 3 November
Assemble 12.30pm Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, London SE1
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth