Dancing the Cancun

The third world rebellion at the WTO talks has its roots in London and Washington.

James Heartfield

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The World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks at Cancún in Mexico were gripped by drama outside, after Korean Farmers’ leader Lee Kyoung Hae killed himself in protest at global trade rules; inside, the talks were deadlocked as the emerging Group of 21 nations demanded America and Europe stop subsidising agricultural exports (1).

‘Alliance of poor unites against the West’, reported the Guardian (2). What is curious, though, is that the plan to derail the WTO was hatched in the developed, not the developing world.

The Group of 21 is led by Brazil, China and India, and has seized the moral high-ground from more developed countries, by demanding that they too must liberalise their markets. For decades all the pressure has been the other way around – with less developed countries forced to lift tariffs, suspend subsidies and sell off state assets.

In 1955 a Non-Aligned Movement launched at Bandung, Indonesia took advantage of the geopolitical conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union to advance its own agenda. At Cancún the Group of 21 might be seen as taking advantage of the trade wars between the USA and Europe to secure a better hearing at the top table.

But the third world case against first world trade restrictions does not originate in the third world. On the contrary: the arguments that the Group of 21 put against European and American trade negotiators were first developed by Western aid organisations and NGOs. Oxfam International’s 2002 report Rigged Rules and Double Standards contains all the basic arguments made by the Group of 21, but it was drafted in Oxford and London: ‘the problem is not that international trade is inherently opposed to the needs and interests of the poor, but that the rules that govern it are rigged in favour of the rich.’

The aid organisations and NGOs have used the injustices of world trade to highlight their own differences with the leaders of the Western world. These criticisms of ‘globalisation’ serve to cohere the anti-globalisation movement ideologically. Taking up cudgels on behalf of the third world is important for the anti-globalisation movement. They are keen to avoid the accusation made ‘in the press that this is a movement of spoilt middle-class white kids with nothing better to do’, as the Ecologist’s Paul Kingsnorth writes (3).

Strangely, the leaders of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the WTO and the World Bank seem to agree that the barrier to free trade today is to be found in Washington and Brussels. Their respective leaders, Horst Kohler, Mike Moore and James Wolfensohn, issued a joint statement after America imposed steel tariffs and new farm subsidies in May 2002, demanding to know ‘How can leaders in developing countries argue for more open economies if leadership in this area is not forthcoming from wealthy nations?’.

Financial institutions and anti-globalisation protesters outside the WTO lend the argument force, but they in themselves would not have been enough to wrong-foot the big bloc negotiators Pascal Lamy (Europe) and Robert Zoellick (USA). In recent years Lamy and Zoellick have themselves been talking up the third world case against each other’s trade restrictions. European restrictions on genetically modified crops are, according to the USA, a barrier to third world agriculture – which dare not import US grains for fear of losing US markets. The EU says that US opposition to banana subsidies threaten small Caribbean producers competing with the US-based Chiquita Corporation.

Whatever the justice of these individual cases, the pattern is the same: Europe and America fighting over trade, but doing so in the name of the third world. These rows have created the space for the Group of 21 to press their own claims – but the suspicion must remain that developing nations are being brought on like a stage army in other people’s conflicts.

There is no doubt that the application of trade liberalisation is one-sided, leaving out those areas where developed nations protect markets, concentrating instead on freeing up markets and assets in the developing world.

But it is unlikely that ending subsidies in the developed world will let the farmers of Africa, Brazil and China flood the American and European markets. Years of investment in agribusiness in the developed world has given them an advantage that few developing countries could challenge. As Guyanan historian Walter Rodney argued many years ago: ‘The countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America are called agricultural countries because they rely on agriculture and have little or no industry: but their agriculture is unscientific and the yields are far less than those of the developed countries.’ (4).

NGOs and Western trade negotiators are prepared to point up the limitations on developing world trade for strategic reasons. Whether they really want to see agriculture in the developing world made more effective is another question.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

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(1) The Group of 21 are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Venezuela and Nigeria.

(2) Guardian, 15 September 2003

(3) One No, Many Yeses, Paul Kingsnorth, 2003, p76

(4) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney, 1972, p24

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