Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sustainable agriculture or Shakespeare?

While protesters voice their resistance to globalization in the streets of Seattle, a reporter wonders if they really have the people's best interests at heart.

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By Nina Shapiro

SEATTLE -- The weekend before the World Trade Organization standoff, I sat in Seattle�s fancy new symphony hall and listened to one leader of the protest movement explain why she was against globalization. "In the South, this globalization has taken the form of development," Swedish activist Helena Norberg-Hodge told a sold-out crowd of thousands at a teach-in sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization, a think tank. And that, she held, only played into an evil "consumer monoculture." Her alternative: A kind of "localization" that encourages people to grow their own food and become "self-reliant."

The crowd cheered loudly and clapped. But, with a painful feeling in my gut, I sat on my hands. My mind wandered back to a couple of years I spent living in southern Africa in the early '90s. I thought about poor people I had met who packed their unbelievably small huts and houses with heavy Western furniture and any other sign of modernity they could get their hands on. I thought about parents in newly independent countries who protested when schools tried to replace academic curricula with the agricultural, bewildering those who believed that their kids had a right to read Shakespeare and learn skills that would give them the comfortable lifestyle of their colonizers. Who was I to tell them, as Norberg-Hodge implied, that subsistence farming was a superior existence?

Much as I abhor wasteful consumerism and corporate greed, I want to see the Third World get the chance to develop. My confusion, which has caused me intense agony in a week of physical and ideological clashes, lies in whether the WTO and globalization will help or hinder that process. Judging by the reaction to this week�s events in the developing world, the protestors are a bit confused about that too.

As riot police took over city streets and WTO meetings got shakily off the ground mid-week, one Indian participant stopped in a hotel corridor to argue that protestors who believe they are fighting for the rights of exploited workers in developing countries have inadvertently become "like Marie Antoinette, saying let them have cake."

What they don�t understand, said the Indian whose job does not allow him to comment on the record, is that the labor and environmental standards that the U.S. government is pushing to appease protestors will hurt small-time fishermen, carpet makers and others in India who cannot possibly keep up with the standards of the West. "If you deprive people of their bread and butter," he warned, "we�ll have millions of protestors instead of thousands."

Indeed, many Indians believe so strongly that the protests are against their interests that there is a widespread belief among them that the whole affair was, in the words of Times of India economics editor Priya Ranjan Dash, "being stage-managed by the Clinton administration."

So in the eyes of much of the developing world, the protests -- or at least how they are being used by the White House in an election year -- have become a symbol of the very kind of Western domination they are fighting against.

That is not to say that everyone in the developing world is thrilled with the WTO and the free trade system it represents. Many developing countries believe they got shafted in the last round of negotiations. Delegates from developing countries came to Seattle prepared to fight for more open markets in the kind of products they make, such as agricultural goods and textiles. They also wanted longer transition periods for opening up their markets to Western goods, a toughening up of measures that call upon Western powers to share technology with developing countries in which they do business and the reform of intellectual property rules that prevent them from making cheap drugs to combat AIDS and other epidemics.

For that to happen, though, what was supposed to be the WTO�s "development round" had to come off. When it did, and labor and environmental issues took center stage instead of their issues, delegates found themselves confronting what they perceived as yet more barriers set by the West. Hence the stage was set for the Seattle battle within the WTO.

Most people from developing countries that I have talked to, both inside and outside the WTO, believe that a reformed WTO is necessary if they are to have any hope of the kind of globalization that will allow them to capture some of the developed world�s wealth. Even Martin Khor, president of the Malaysian think tank Third World Network and one of the protest movement�s most visible intellectual leaders, told me, "I am not opposed to a multilateral trading system."

At the same time, most also recognize that free trade is a risky proposition for countries that have long relied on protectionism to nurture fragile local businesses. Malawi education minister Ken Lipenga, intently following the WTO crisis from Malawi, explains how free trade can enter such an economy like a wrecking ball. Malawi, a southern African country so poor that even construction workers go barefoot, recently lowered tariffs in order to comply with a regional agreement. The result: Several British companies who had long maintained subsidiaries there, like soap manufacturer Lever Brothers, closed up shop and started bringing products in from its larger operation in nearby Zimbabwe.

Lipenga and others worry that a similar phenomenon will occur on a larger scale with the WTO. Local businesses (even subsidiaries of Western multinationals) will die as markets are flooded with cheap goods made by companies that enjoy access to capital and economies of scale. Thus, in the weeks leading up to WTO, a Ford subsidiary in India held a press conference to warn against removing tariffs in the automobile industry.

Yet the protest movement, which gives the impression that Western companies have no business in developing countries, focuses less on this basic dynamic than on the specter of Third World "sweatshops" run by greedy, environment-wrecking multinationals. And indeed, they exist. El Salvadorian union leader Manuel Vasquez came to protest events in Seattle to speak about Western-owned factories that pay workers less than $8 a day and that have doled out beatings so severe that some pregnant workers have lost their babies. The American oil industry�s savaging of the Nigerian countryside is well known.

But particularly on the question of working conditions, the picture is not so simple. Probably far more typical than sweatshops are Western-owned companies offering salaries that are high by local standards but abysmally low by American ones. While this imbalance seems inherently offensive, especially when American companies lay off workers here to chase after cheap labor, these companies provide decent jobs in countries where unemployment rates run at 30, 40, even 50 percent, and where unemployment sometimes means going back to subsistence farming. In the very best of cases, it brings technology, energy and a new market that will attract local entrepreneurs. A shining example is India�s billion-dollar high-tech industry that emerged after Microsoft, IBM and other American firms laid a foundation there. That�s why Lipenga and others say, "We want foreign investment. We need it."

To get it, developing countries recognize that what they offer is cheap labor. "That is our only weapon and we have to use it," says Senegalese Minister of Planning Ibrahim Sall. "They [Western countries] have high-technology, we have cheap labor."

Developing countries fear that labor and environmental standards could raise the bar to unrealistic Western expectations as a way to slow foreign investment (and save jobs in the West), as well as blocking imports from struggling Third World entrepreneurs (eliminating competition for Western entrepreneurs in the same market). Hence India�s Commerce Minister Murasloi Maran labels such standards a "Trojan horse for proctectionism."

How is it that a protest movement preaching international solidarity has brought about this conflict? It seems to have been blinded by sloganeering over easy-to-hate sweatshops, as well as factions with agendas that don�t necessarily coincide with Third World development.

Most crucially, the unions that poured the vast majority of people onto the streets last week have an obvious challenge in dealing with the issue of cheap labor. Their cruel dilemma is that what�s good for American workers is not always good for the poorest workers overseas, a dilemma that organized labor does not seem to have fully faced.

AFL-CIO international affairs director Barbara Shailor, who also spoke at last weekend�s teach-in, used her platform to refute charges of protectionism. The country�s biggest union, she says, merely wants to ensure that workers overseas have the right to organize. As if to prove her point, she shared the stage with union leaders from Africa and Brazil.

But after her speech, I asked her if that meant she would be okay with jobs going overseas if they were going to union workers who would inevitably still earn far less than their American counterparts. She answered vaguely that she was not "technically equipped" to answer, but that she was sure there was a way to create a "virtuous circle" with plenty of jobs to go around for everyone.

And maybe there is. Maybe, as one Indian here suggests, workers all over the world could somehow meet and discuss solutions to their different needs. But I wonder, is such a dialogue more or less likely to happen after this week�s events in Seattle?

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About the writer
Nina Shapiro is a staff writer for the Seattle Weekly.