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World: Anti-Globalization Movement Counts In Trade Talks

  • Tony Wesolowsky

It's been a year since a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle brought the anti-globalization movement to the world's attention. Tens of thousands of protesters turned an otherwise inauspicious gathering of trade officials into what has become known as the "Battle of Seattle." The protesters represented a mix of causes and groups -- from labor unions and consumer rights organizations to religious faiths and environmentalists. What united them was a belief that the form of globalization envisioned by multilateral financial institutions, like the WTO, is doing more harm than good.

Prague, 8 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Alexandra Wandel, a trade specialist with the non-governmental organization Friends of the Earth, says the most significant result of Seattle was that it brought a heretofore arcane and technical subject -- international trade -- into the public's eyes. That's the good news, she argues. The bad news, according to Wandel and like-minded anti-globalization supporters, is that world governments have not gotten the protesters' message.

"One year after Seattle, many non-governmental organizations and citizens are frustrated and upset because we see that governments are pursuing a business-as-usual agenda and nothing has changed."

But not all anti-globalizationists are as pessimistic. Collin Harker is an economist at the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, or ICFTU, an umbrella organization of trade unions representing 155 million working people worldwide. He says the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, and the World Bank, have addressed some of the criticisms leveled at them by the anti-globalization movement.

"The World Bank and the IMF have shown, to a certain extent, they've learned some of the lessons -- [as an example,] these new poverty reduction strategy papers that they're proposing for debt relief. First of all, they've suggested this is necessary for countries that are applying debt relief to have a participatory process that involves civil society groups. They haven't gone far enough though in terms of ensuring this actually takes place and, in a lot of cases, unions haven't been involved."

But Harker is more critical of the World Trade Organization, or WTO. Today, with a membership of 140 nations, the WTO has a much greater mandate than that of its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Moving beyond its historic role of setting tariffs and quotas, the WTO now deals with non-tariff barriers to trade -- such as health and environmental standards -- as well as a regulations that might somehow, in the organization's terminology, "distort" or "obstruct" the free flow of goods and services.

The WTO has seen its image tarnished over the past year. The protest movement has denounced the organization as a symbol of the exploitation of developing countries by the developed world and accused it of being dominated by multinational companies. Sensitive to such charges, WTO Director-General Mike Moore has spent the last year trying to spread the message that the body is a rules-based organization driven by its members.

Labor rights groups like the ICFTU in Brussels fault the WTO for not giving proper weight to workers' rights.

But the WTO says it's not to blame for the failure to weave regulations governing labor into the fabric of international trade rules. WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell explains: "The United States, the European Union, and the Canadians pushed very hard for there to be established within the WTO a working group, a working party, some mechanism, to discuss the issue of labor standards here. That was rejected and it was rejected by not a couple of countries, it was rejected by every single developing country government."

It could be that a fault line among its 140 members-- split roughly between developed and developing countries-- is now the WTO's biggest enemy, not the protesters on the streets. Developing countries like India and Bangladesh are reluctant to resume trade talks, arguing they have yet to see the benefits of earlier trade accords. Meanwhile, the developed nations want to speed ahead, tackling such issues as investment, government procurement, competition, and electronic [that is, e-mail and Internet] commerce. The ICFTU's Harker says the success of any future trade talks will hinge on overcoming the gap between the developed and developing worlds.

"There's [now] an unbridgeable gap between many developing countries and many industrialized countries. [The] agenda being pushed by industrialized countries in the end wasn't accepted by the developing countries. And I think the industrialized countries have to realize many of the developing countries' concerns aren't being met, and that's got to change if the WTO is going to go any further forward than it is presently stalled right now."

Friends of the Earth and other non-governmental organizations point out that the developing world has yet to be convinced of the benefits of free trade. They say, too, that free trade has been accompanied by a widening in the gap between the rich and poor nations. Friends of the Earth noted in a recent policy paper that "between 1975 and 1997, as global trade expanded, the average wealth per person in the world's richest 31 countries increased, yet in 31 mostly poor countries it actually declined."

But the WTO says poverty is most prevalent in those countries that have yet to open up their markets to free trade. Its spokesman Rockwell explains.

"The people who have been hurt the most the last 10 years have been those who have not participated in the globalization movement. As [U.N.] Secretary-General Kofi Annan says time and again, those countries -- particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa -- that have been marginalized in this process have been the ones hurt the most."

In a report issued earlier this week, the World Bank said exports from developing countries grew an average of 10 percent per year during the 1990s, more than three times the growth rate in the 1980s. The report said rising exports, in turn, helped economies able to tap into the boom to grow rapidly.

WTO spokesman Rockwell says that despite the differences between the developing and developed nations and the concerns of the anti-globalization movement, trade talks must go ahead. A new round of trade talks is scheduled for next year, and European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, as well as U.S. President Bill Clinton, have been eagerly pushing for it. But with the challenges now facing the WTO, those talks may amount to little more than just that.

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