Losing the faith
Monday September 8, 2003
The west is creating an extremely dangerous economic, environmental and humanitarian timebomb. We are living beyond our means. The poorest countries need to trade on fair terms with us if they are ever to get off their knees. Handouts are no longer the answer.
When the WTO started out, poor countries were spun the line that they could gain access to western markets if they signed up to a pro-business agenda - even though that agenda was potentially at the cost of their already suffering populations.
The west has not fulfilled its part in those agreements. It has reneged on its agreement to cut subsidies to its own farmers, and rules on intellectual property rights mean drugs are too expensive and 30,000 people die every day as a direct consequence. When developing countries export to the west they have to pay tariffs four times that between western countries themselves, costing £63bn per year.
Western governments, as they increasingly lose their grip on the reality of the situation, see the key to fixing these problems (that they have helped to create) to be... more liberalisation.
This, to me, feels like a bus full of religious lunatics rolling into town singing free trade songs and banging tambourines as war and famine break out and all about them turns to shit. It's nonsense. Why should the most desperate continue to cooperate with such fools when they increasingly have nothing left to lose? They are not seeing the so-called benefits but they are seeing too much of the costs.
This sort of free trade capitalism is a faith. A faith against all the odds. Nowadays it seems to have taken on the authority of the word of God, as if it has always been thus. But all it is really is a set of trade rules that should and could benefit all, and could be changed. Why should it be a corrupt protection racket?
There must be a change to trade rules in favour of the poor and the environment. International human rights must be respected. There must be corporate accountability so that multinationals are taken to task over corruption, human rights and environment abuses.
What the developing countries need is to be able to protect the livelihoods of their own farmers and allow their industries to develop.
Increasingly the effects of such globalisation make it clear the only ones benefiting are the multinational corporations, who have the ear of our governments and are having their free trade cake and eating it. They make sure any rules affecting their "freedoms" are first on the agenda at the WTO.
Poor countries are told this is free trade - this is the way we succeeded, this is how we built our great capitalist system.
The amnesia and hypocrisy is breathtaking.
Even the World Bank now admits that a nation's economy needs protection for it to grow in its early stages of development, just as it did in the UK, US and Asia. The constant mantra of the "trickle-down" effect of wealth creation is comical. It's so last week, dahling.
What the poorest countries need are specific policies that improve their situation in their terms.
When I got involved in Jubilee 2000, and tried to persuade governments, the IMF and the World Bank to cancel the unpayable debts it seemed like a reasonably fair thing to ask.
The situation was so utterly ridiculous I didn't believe they would deny us. But they did.
They found every excuse they could, but the only reason that I could find was that the west cannot shake its need to control the rest of the planet in any way it can. They cannot shake off this colonial attitude. In order to keep order they have to have fingers permanently wrapped around throats.
Debt burdens are a beautifully tight noose, and now, even better, they have the WTO to do the dirty work for them.
Poor countries at the WTO have been too scared to speak out, for fear of making their situation worse, and they are outnumbered. Sometimes countries cannot afford to send even one representative to the WTO meetings. Yet the EU can send 500. Much of the agenda is still decided by the rich nations in closed meetings. The WTO, thus far, has been hijacked.
But I think this is the turning point. This is a crossroads in the global economic system. Do we carry on preaching this free unfettered trade garbage or do we admit our mistakes and try to do the right thing for once?
The Trade Justice Movement states that if Africa, east Asia, south Asia and Latin America could increase their share of world exports by 1% it would lift 128 million people out of poverty. Just how difficult is that?
· Thom Yorke (lead singer of Radiohead), on my small soapbox in a hotel bathroom in Washington DC.