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Protesters ignore the benefits of trade

By Alan Oxley - posted Thursday, 21 November 2002

The protests about the World Trade Organisation are as far from reality as the recent Gay Games were from the Olympics.

The Gay Games were staged to have an event. The Olympics were held to showcase the best of sport. The protesters are here to protest. The WTO is here to help the world's poor.

The protests are so unreal they are frivolous. Protesters claim the WTO is the tool of multinational corporations. So why have 40 developing countries joined the WTO in the last decade and 30 more have applications in?


They claim the WTO oppresses the poor. So why do the leaders of the world's biggest countries with the largest number of poor regard the WTO as the best hope to raise living standards? They claim it despoils the environment and denies human rights. It does neither. It promotes trade and through that prosperity. Desperately poor countries cannot protect the environment and have the worst records of human rights abuse.

They say the WTO is undemocratic. Members don't think so. The WTO takes most decisions by consensus and gives more legal power to poor and small countries to challenge the actions of rich countries than other international organisation. They don't consider it undemocratic.

The gap between the rhetoric of the anti-globalisation protesters and the reality has puzzled observers for years. Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Foundation in New Delhi, a free-market non government organisation think tank, first encountered this when he went to Seattle to observe the now famous WTO riots. He is visiting Sydney to report on the WTO meeting.

"I thought then that the protesters just didn't understand the issues," Mitra told Australian journalists at a briefing yesterday. "No country in the world has prospered by being closed. India is a case in point. When India embarked on its self-sufficiency program after independence, its share of world trade fell and growth slowed." he explained. "The IT sector in India has flourished because it is not smothered with government rules," he went on.

Mitra says these NGOs do not attract support in developing countries like they do in the West. The reason is the poor see things differently. They want growth and prosperity. They know trade creates it. Mitra helped organise Indian farmers and South African street hawkers to protest in favour of free trade at the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development last month.

He says he now sees the Western NGOs in a more cynical light. He believes they are not basically interested in eradicating poverty in the Third World. Some even have a vested interest in seeing it perpetuated. It makes it easier to draw funds from government agencies in the West. He says people would be astonished if they knew how much money is directed to anti-globalisation groups by aid and environment agencies in rich countries.


This may surprise people, but it is a regular subject of discussion among leaders of developing countries. Ernesto Zedillo, a former president of Mexico, addressed the role of Western NGOs at a private dinner during the WTO ministerial conference in Doha when the current round of WTO negotiations was launched a year ago.

"We Latin American presidents always raised this issue with president Clinton when we discussed development in Latin America," he told the group. "We told him American NGOs pushed first world agendas, set up local copycats and did this on US aid money. Clinton used to joke that he preferred they were doing this in our backyards rather than his," concluded Zedillo.

Leaders of international institutions have found the protest movement frustrating. When counselled to have dialogue with the protesters, both Mike Moore, former director general of the WTO and James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, found nothing changed. The attacks continued.

The reason is that the core of the protesters do not want dialogue, they want action. Why? The primary reason for attacking the WTO is that is a success. Does that seem a small reason? It is. It is as small as the amount of reality in their complaints.

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This article was first published in The Australian on November 14, 2002.

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About the Author

Alan Oxley is the former ambassador to the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs and Chairman of the Australian APEC Studies Centre.

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