Behind the scenes at the WTO

This book explodes the myth that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is the model of a democratic organisation. Its conclusion is that 'Developed countries are benefiting from the WTO, as are handful of (mostly upper-) middle income countries. The rest, including the great majority of developing countries, are not. It’s as simple as that'.

Jawara and Kwa use as their case study the negotiations leading up to and at the Doha Ministerial Conference in November 2001. In the shadow of the September 11th attacks, and after the perceived ‘failure’ of the Seattle meeting in 1999, enormous and unprecedented pressure was brought to bear on the delegates of smaller countries, leading to a set of agreements which once again served to perpetuate rather than to mitigate the division between the haves and the have-nots. The authors conclude that the WTO has so far failed in its mandate, set out in the Marakesh agreement of April 1994 that gave birth to the WTO. This mandates begins:

'The Parties to this agreement: Recognising that their relations in the field of trade and economic endeavour should be conducted with a view to raising standards of living, ensuring full employment and a large and steadily growing volume of real income and effective demand…'

This clearly establishes that raising standards of living in all member countries is the primary goal of the WTO. Yet this has not happened. Why has the WTO failed? The book concludes that it has failed because of systemic weaknesses at three levels:

  1. The Official Level – The rules governing the decision-making processes in the WTO are minimal. Developed countries want to maintain this fluidity because with it comes power for them. Documents are drawn up by a small elite of countries, and then presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the membership. Thereafter, arm-twisting and pay-offs, bargaining chips, preferential agreements and aid, as well as the power of patronage and personal promotion are all used to bulldoze through any resistance. External transparency to these negotiations is at a minimum – many of the meetings are not even minuted. This leaves smaller countries in an impossible position, afraid of losing what little support they have in an unequal world, and forced to adopt policies which they know are not in the best interests of their own people.
  2. The Subterranean Level – The WTO negotiations are carried out in rounds. This means that rather than dealing with one issue at a time, a whole raft of issues is discussed together - officially so that trade-offs can be made between different issues. The effect, however, is that poor countries are unable to cover the large number of different meetings and debates that are occurring simultaneously. They simply don’t have the manpower, and therefore have a much smaller voice at the table and can be bewildered by the pace and detail of proposals – hardly democratic.
  3. The Ideological Level – The assumption that underpins the WTO has been around for over 200 years. It was first laid out by David Ricardo (1772–1823) and says that 'trade liberalisation promotes growth and therefore reduces poverty, improves health and the environment'. But despite its tacit acceptance by decision makers today, this remains an unproven economic theory, and one which appears inconsistent with the experience of a contemporary world. The pace of poverty reduction has slowed in the ‘globalisation’ era, and the gap between rich and poor has widened. This theory is by no means uncontested, even within the economic mainstream, and provides no basis on which to build an international trading system.

What is scarier still is that Trade Liberalisation, far from being questioned or discredited, has actually been elevated within the goals of the WTO. Rather than being a means to the end of improved living standards and poverty reduction, it has become an end in itself.

“Anarchy – the threat (real or supposed) used to justify the WTO – may be bad for the weak, but the tyranny of the strong may be worse.”

The authors conclude that the WTO needs radical and wholesale reform at all levels if it is to achieve its goals, and be a force for good. However, they doubt whether the current structure is capable of reforming from within, given the vested interests that the most powerful players hold in maintaining the status quo. By using the WTO to set up the rules whereby Northern corporations can exploit the resources of the south – labour as well as natural resources – the North is perpetuating a form of neo-colonialism, with devastating consequences.

What does the Bible have to say about this?

It is very clear to me that the Bible has a lot to say about this kind of behaviour.

Isaiah 10:1,2 – ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people…’

Ezekiel 28:16 – ‘Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence and you sinned.’

See also Luke 10:27, Proverbs 29:7, Psalm 146:7, Amos 5:21-24, 8:4.

How should we respond?

So let’s not kid ourselves that Aid is enough. It is not right to lock someone up, and then feel good about giving him a little food when he is starving. That is a start, but it is the bare minimum. We would campaign and petition for the prisoner’s release until they were freed.

The power of this book is that it makes the charges against the WTO comprehensible to all of us, and they are hard to refute. It is patently clear that Northern governments are not going to listen to the voices of leaders of developing countries crying out for justice. And it is also clear that these voices may not even be raised, for fear of the consequences. The only voices that Northern governments will listen to are the voices of the people who vote for them – those people who put them in power, and can remove them from power again. That is you and me. This is our responsibility – to educate ourselves about these issues, and to speak out against injustice. Keeping quiet is not an option, for these things are being done in our name.