When the Poor Stand Together: Many Will Be Delighted That Developing Nations Did Not Have the Chance to Bargain Away Their Rights to Make Their Own Laws and Run Their Own Services

New Statesman (1996), September 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

When the Poor Stand Together: Many Will Be Delighted That Developing Nations Did Not Have the Chance to Bargain Away Their Rights to Make Their Own Laws and Run Their Own Services


Far disaster, the collapse of the World Trade organisation talks in Cancun, Mexico, offers the promise, admittedly a small one, of a better era in international affairs. The trouble with the WTO, despite its nominally democratic constitution, has always been that the giants of the developed world--the US, the EU and Japan--can divide and rule the weaklings of the developing world. They use some unsavoury methods: threats to cut off aid to unco-operative countries; offers of bilateral trade deals on the side to drive a wedge between alliances of poor nations; phone calls to capital cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America demanding (often successfully) the removal of particularly stubborn ambassadors and representatives. Now the developing countries have discovered the power of sticking together and just saying "no" to demands that they allow big corporations more or less unrestricted freedom to make money out of them.

Moreover, without the fudged deals and without the excuse (used in Seattle in 1999) that violent protests upset the negotiators' delicate nerves, the hypocrisy and double standards of the western powers are more clearly exposed. For example, four very poor African countries--Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali--demanded that the US stop its $3m-$4m annual subsidies to its domestic cotton farmers. These have contributed to the loss of $1bn a year in exports from the African countries' cotton industries--industries that were expanded at the behest of the World Bank. All the Americans could suggest was that they help the Africans start some other sort of business.

Whether the Cancun collapse is best followed by the collapse of the WTO itself is another matter. Even critics of the existing order, such as the environmental campaigner George Monbiot, argue that the WTO has more merit than most of the other big international institutions, including the UN, because it gives no inbuilt advantage to the great powers. Its decisions require unanimity and even the US vote counts for as much as Chad's. Its rules, backed by a disputes settlement procedure, are supposed to be as binding on rich countries as on poor.

The reality is less attractive. Poor countries often cannot afford the expensive and protracted disputes procedure and are forced to make disadvantageous "out of court" settlements. In any case, when push comes to shove, the WTO's only sanction is to allow a complainant to retaliate with trade restrictions.

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