Saving the poor from development

Michael Pollak mpollak at
Tue Mar 21 13:04:12 PST 2000

>From Focus on Trade #46 (Walden Bello's newsletter)

Who Speaks for Whom?

[Argument starts in the 3rd paragraph. In a nutshell: if Seattle demostrators were "saving the the third world from development" that's because development as now prosecuted is something they need to be saved from.]

by Shalmali Guttal

On February 10, representatives from a diverse group of peoples movements, citizens' organisations, farmers' associations and NGOs gathered together in the Alternatives to Neo-Liberalism Forum in Bangkok to discuss the impact of trade and investment liberalisation on the agriculture sector. Representatives from Ecuador, Philippines, Thailand, India, Nepal, Indonesia and Belgium shared experiences of the negative impacts of economic globalisation, and made recommendations for local and national action to reclaim some measure of control on their livelihoods and lives. Many of the issues raised in this Forum also found currency in the UNCTAD X discussions in the following week, where officials from developing countries often engaged in bitter debates with officials from developed countries about unequal terms of trade and the discriminatory nature of rules that have come to govern much of global economic activity.

Arguments for free and unrestricted trade mediated through the WTO were more than adequately made by Mr. Michael Moore, and supplemented by Ms. Claire Short and Mr. James Wolfensohn. Interestingly, while all three spoke to country government delegates, they seemed to speak on behalf of the 1.5 billion people living in dire poverty in developing countries who apparently "need the WTO more than the developed countries." It is hardly ironic that the very processes lauded as carriers of prosperity and progress by the WTO, World Bank and G7 governments have been fiercely critiqued by representatives of the poor in the developing world.

For majority of the 1.5 billion peoples that Mr. Moore, Ms. Short and Mr. Wolfensohn are so concerned about, indiscriminate trade and financial liberalisation, and the shift to market oriented agriculture production have seriously constrained food and livelihood security. They have resulted in continued marginalisation of indigenous peoples, small farmers and local populations from land and other crucial resources. They have led to outward migration of peasants and farm workers to find work in factories, the hospitality sector, as domestic workers and in fact, in just about any area of work that would provide them with food and shelter. But for advocates of unrestricted free trade, the road to development is paved with markets. Developing countries must "grow themselves out of poverty" through further liberalisation of the agriculture and service sectors, increased competition and private investment, and decreased public protection of vulnerable populations and domestic capacity. In fact, according to Ms. Claire Short, the public sector needs to make "appropriate adjustments" to ensure that the vast amounts of capital moving around the world looking for investment will find homes in developing countries. Only through such measures will the benefits of globalisation reach the needy in developing countries.

Peoples' movements stress the need for global solidarity across civil society especially among workers, small farmers, indigenous populations, peasant movements and NGOs. On the other hand, international policy makers talk about global linkages in the language of "policy coherence " through which neo-liberal policies dictated by a handful of powerful governments would control the rules and parameters by which countries relate to one another.

People's movements want transparency and accountability in decision making about trade and investment: they want information about how large corporations—whether domestic or multinational--negotiate deals with governments to get away with massive profits without obligations or responsibilities towards society or the environment. They want nationally responsive development agendas and are more than willing to work with their governments to formulate them. While the free traders also advocate for transparency, it is under the dubious rubric of preventing corruption: developing countries must have transparent procurement guidelines and competition policies so that domestic playing field can be leveled for large corporations to dominate yet more markets. The global free traders want governments to act within their systems of rules and will gladly cross national boundaries and make alliances with civil society to ensure such compliance.

Peoples' movements want to strengthen their local and national economies: they want more control over the setting of trade and economic policies, and they want these policies to work for the broadest cross section of society possible, not for a small group of elite business interests. They stress the importance of technological innovation and technology transfer with the primary focus of ensuring that small and medium size producers are not destroyed by sudden shifts in trade policy or consumption preferences, and can hold their own in the expanding world of globalised production. But for the global free traders, the true worth of domestic economies lies in the degree to which they can create favourable conditions for private investment. Technical assistance is important not for strengthening domestic capacity, but so that development countries can take advantages of the trade "opportunities" provided by global trade and investment policies.

People's movements, citizen's groups, workers' unions, peasant associations and a number of other NGOs want social, political and economic equity. They want policy measures that support job creation, livelihood security, the redistribution of assets and income, land reform and equitable resource tenure systems. They do not want policies or rules that destroy the foundations of their livelihoods and self-sufficiency, and that facilitate inequitable and unjust concentrations of wealth. For them, sustainable development cannot be achieved simply through the expansion of free trade or other market based solutions, and they strongly oppose subjecting crucial spheres of activity such as agriculture to the vagaries of a free market system.

Perhaps, it is true that as Ms. Claire Short complained in the UNCTAD X interactive debate on February 16, the protesters in Seattle wanted to save developing countries from development. But perhaps it is even more true that the narrow vision of development promoted by Mr. Moore, Ms. Short, Mr. Wolfensohn and other priests of economic globalisation is something we all need saving from.

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