Free trade is good for the rich, and better still for the poor. Why does the WTO come under attack from Greens and development lobbyists?by P L / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Perhaps the riots in Seattle marked a turning point for a globalising world. In the past 50 years cross-border trade and investment have boomed, raising living standards across the world and lifting millions out of poverty. But now a backlash against this closer integration has begun. This backlash is surprising. By and large, it comes not from developing countries which were battered when world financial markets seized up in 1997-98, but from rich countries which escaped largely unscathed. It is strongest in the US, the biggest beneficiary of free trade, luxuriating in an economic boom. And its main target is not multinational companies or global banks, but a once obscure regulator with 500 staff and an annual budget of ?48m: the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The protesters who mobbed its summit in Seattle last December have propelled the WTO to notoriety. Yet it remains widely misunderstood. The popular perception is of a secretive, unaccountable body which tramples on national laws that protect the poor, the environment, and public health, in order to advance big companies’ global ambitions. “Many decisions affecting people’s daily lives are being shifted away from our local and national governments and instead are being made by a group of unelected trade bureaucrats sitting behind closed doors in Geneva,” according to Ralph Nader, a leading American consumer-rights campaigner. The WTO, it is said, threatens countries’ sovereignty and democracy itself.
This distorted image of the WTO is peddled by an unlikely alliance of media-savvy pressure groups and old-fashioned protectionists. Greens make common cause with smokestack industries, consumer activists with trade unions, development lobbyists with rich-country farmers. These “globaphobes” have all sorts of gripes, many of them contradictory. Some rage that rich-country markets are being flooded with cheap imports from poor countries, others that they are rigged against them. Many who rail at the WTO’s powers want to hijack them for their own ends. But all of them harness people’s anxieties about the might of big business, the pace of economic change, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of intangible global forces-and focus these fears on to the WTO. Ostensibly, globaphobes have the WTO in their sights because it is powerful. In fact they target it because it is weak. The WTO cannot easily fight back. It has no votes to deliver, no lobbyists in national parliaments, no campaign contributions to splash around and no vast PR budget.…