The terrible consequences of failure at Cancun

We are now in the middle of the most important week of 2003, and quite possibly the most important week of the decade. And, yes, I am including in that 11 September 2001 and its aftermath. The Cancun summit - where the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is meeting - has the potential to transform the lives of the 1.2 billion people on this planet today who are surviving on one dollar or less per 24 hours.

There is a fashionable pessimism about world poverty: decade after decade the same starving Africans seem to wander across our TV screens, so their misery begins to seem as inevitable as earthquakes and tidal waves. This is rubbish. A concerted global effort to deal with poverty could yield amazing results.

There is no mystery. The checklist is well-known: End agricultural subsidies in the rich world. Open our markets to products from the poor world. Allow developing economies to protect themselves, as we did when we were emerging from poverty. Allow the poor to manufacture life-saving drugs. Cancel all poor world debt. No miracles. We do not need a Messiah. We need only a basic moral and political determination to eradicate abject poverty from the human condition.

Cancun could, if we willed it, bring all this much closer. The developing countries, by sticking together, managed to prevent all WTO progress at Seattle, because their interests were being ignored. It was promised that Cancun would be their agenda, their deal. Most of what the poor so desperately need would cost us nothing anyway. Ditching the disgusting mountain of money we pour into the pockets of mostly-rich farmers would actually save us cash.

Yet the signs are that Cancun will be a summit that lives on in infamy, a moment when representatives of the existing world order met and refused to deal with the most urgent crises facing humanity - crises even greater than the battle against al-Qa'ida, the situation in Iraq, or any other problem that occupies our front pages. The European Union is already back-tracking on the pathetically minor reductions in farming subsidies it has proposed. The US has stitched up a deal on drug patenting that will help nobody except the already-rich pharmaceutical companies.

So what if Cancun fails? Starving people cannot afford to wait for tiny incremental reforms brought summit after summit, generation after generation. The current system may be reaching its tipping point, beyond which any claim to moral credibility collapses. If the WTO does not deliver for the poor now, when it promised it would set aside a summit to, then it never will.

If Cancun fails, developing countries are left in a terrible situation. If they withdraw from the WTO, then they gain almost nothing and face being excluded from important markets yet further. But if they stay, they lend credibility to an institution that has lied to them and failed to deliver even the most modest changes to their people's benefit. The poor do need an institution like the WTO that regulates global trade; but not with these rules, not this way.

Regular readers will know that I argued for the liberation of Iraq. Liberation into a world of the post-Cancun IMF and WTO-dictated injustices is much better than Saddam's continuing rule would have been, but it still leaves Iraqis to cope with dictated policies and avoidable poverty.

Perhaps the only way beyond the WTO and IMF as they currently stand is for the decent people of the rich world to stand in solidarity with the poor world. Just as huge anti-Apartheid campaigning delegitimised that system, we may need another vast movement to transform the systems that are betraying the poor.

Two recent works have explored how this could be achieved. George Monbiot's The Age of Consent present a radical picture of a world where the institutions of global government (and don't forget these already exist: the IMF, World Bank and WTO have a global remit and global influence) are accountable not only to the peoples of the rich world but to all the people over whom they wield power. The banker George Soros gave the game away about this when he said a few years ago, "In the Roman Empire, only the Romans voted. In modern global capitalism, only the Americans vote."

Global democracy as the truly equitable way to regulate world trade - with rules being set by a world government accountable in turn to the world - is obviously a very distant goal. But it will only begin if we start to campaign for it now, and we could begin to act in this spirit tomorrow by putting as high a premium on the lives of the poor as we do on the rich.

It is hard to begin this task without a sigh. This is a dark, dark moment; I would much rather that the WTO and IMF had shown themselves capable of reform from within. I am instinctively a reformist not a revolutionary, and I have even trotted out (mistakenly, I now realise) some of the pro-WTO, pro-IMF lines myself. But it is impossible now, in this week, to look at the existing global financial institutions and claim that they work.

So, barring some extraordinary developments in the next few days or the nine-month negotiating period that follows, Cancun is dead; long live the movement for global democracy. But fasten your seatbelts - this is going to be a very long and very bumpy ride.