Leading Article: Senseless in Seattle

Share
Related Topics
THE BATTLE lines are drawn. In the next few days tens of thousands of protesters will descend on Seattle in a bid to stop a new round of trade negotiations by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). They see themselves as Luke Skywalkers to the WTO's Darth Vader, fighting to save the world from the threat of increased poverty and environmental destruction. Their ultimate ambition: to destroy the WTO and the liberal trading system it represents. On the other side of the barricades will be a small army of corporate lobbyists, many of them linked to Western governments. They see themselves - and the WTO - as defenders of a global free trading system that enshrines the principles of multilateralism and promises unprecedented prosperity. Both sets of protagonists pose a profound threat to a constituency that will not be well represented in Seattle - namely, the world's poor.

Some of the arguments advanced by critics of the Seattle talks would be laughable, were it not for the fact that they enjoy such wide currency. The anti-WTO witch-hunter general in the UK is Teddy Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist magazine. His view is that the only beneficiaries of trade are giant companies for whom "free trade" means the freedom to exploit, plunder and pollute; it follows that more trade is bad trade. Mr Goldsmith could usefully spend some time discussing his views with people in the developing world whose livelihoods depend on, and have often been enhanced by, international trade.

For millions of poor women in Bangladesh, textile exports have created employment opportunities and the income needed to buy food and send children to school. In Tanzania, desperately poor smallholder farmers can earn more by selling coffee to the EU than by producing for the domestic market. And trade has played a pivotal role in sustaining the economic growth that has lifted 371 million people out of poverty in east Asia over the past two decades. Yes, trade has the potential to inflict social and environmental damage. But it can also act as a force for human development. For many millions of poor people, access to markets in rich countries is literally a matter of life and death.

According to those behind the barricades in Seattle, poor countries should abandon the pursuit of prosperity through trade, in favour of self-reliance. Yet the fact is that trade is now the main engine of growth in the global economy, having grown at twice the rate of world output for the past decade. International trade gives poor countries access to rich consumers, generating employment and investment in the process. Such countries would be the main victims of any descent into protectionism, not least because they lack the economic power and retaliatory capacity to defend their interests. That is why they need a rules-based system to govern world trade - and it is why so many developing countries are lining up to join the WTO.

None of which is to suggest that what currently pass for multilateral trade rules are even remotely tolerable. They are rigged in favour of the rich, often with devastating implications for the poor. Western protectionism costs the world's poorest countries about $700bn a year - 14 times what they receive in aid. Rich nations have failed to act on their pledges to phase out trade barriers against textiles and clothing, the biggest manufacturing export from the developing world. The market for agricultural goods - which are often all that poor countries have to sell - remains closed behind a bewildering array of trade barriers, most of them designed to protect wealthy farmers and corporations. At Seattle, the United States will try to force developing countries to open their markets further to the import of subsidised farm exports from the West, destroying the livelihoods of local farmers in the process. It must not succeed.

Brazen hypocrisy on the part of rich governments is not the only problem. All too often, WTO rules provide a convenient smoke screen for corporate self-interest. Take the case of intellectual property. Under the WTO, the patents protection enjoyed by multinational companies has already been extended. Now the EU and the US are insisting, in flagrant violation of the Biodiversity Convention, that patenting law be applied to all plants and animals. That is an act of bio-piracy, made worse by the fact that companies are already patenting traditional medicines and plants produced in countries such as India and Brazil. And not all of the losers are in the south. The WTO is being used by American companies as a battering ram to open up the European market for genetically modified foods and growth hormones.

Major changes are needed if the WTO is to succeed in laying the foundations for a trading system that contributes towards human development and environmental sustainability. The Seattle talks should focus on improving market access for poor countries and ending agricultural export dumping by rich countries. As India has argued, the intellectual property rules should be torn up and rewritten to reflect the interests of the world's poor. The alternative demanded by the Seattle protesters may be unthinkable. But what we have now is unacceptable.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate Web Developer

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Graduate Database Developer (SQL)

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Day In a Page

Read Next
lowers, candles and other tributes in front of the Netherlands Embassy in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17  

To punish Putin for the MH17 disaster we must boycott Russia 2018

Jack Gilbert
 

The daily catch-up: Joe on Vlad, banks of the Jordan and Blair's radicalism

John Rentoul
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor