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Raj Patel © 2001

 

 
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"A little fertilizer, some bleach and some hubcaps to put them all in, and you've got a bomb", he said. "You can use frozen orange juice and slugs instead of bleach, if you haven't got any", he added helpfully. Sean, a towering neighbourhood 13 year-old fund of wisdom, confided secrets to me that he had cribbed at night from his father's Anarchist's Cookbook. Being only nine years old, I was awed that he'd deign to talk to me at all, let alone tell me how to make a bomb. Sean moved away a few weeks later, and I've not heard from him since. His most germane advice, though, remains with me: "With half a mind and if you try hard enough, you can make a bomb out of anything."

A fertilizer bomb that kills hundreds in Oklahoma. Fuel-laden civil jets that kill four thousand in New York. A sanctions policy that kills one and a half million in Iraq. A trade policy that immiserates continents. You can make a bomb out of anything. The ones on paper hurt the most.

Tucked away in the news in mid-November was a snippet from the Middle East directly related to the 'War on Terrorism', but one that didn't get quite as much coverage as it ought to have done. The World Trade Organization held its Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, and came away with a Ministerial Declaration fluttering in its hand. United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, peddled the Ministerial Conference as part of the war effort. Here's what he said: "America's ability to sustain coalitions against terrorism will depend in part on our attention to the problems faced by our partners. Many democratic governments in developing nations, already struggling with economic challenges before September 11, now face staggering difficulties."

That these difficulties are due to the previous trade rounds, and to developing countries' increased, policed and enforced integration into America's global economy, seems temporarily to have escaped Mr Zoellick. As ever, beneath the veneer of US magnanimity writhes a tangle of less noble intentions. The new Doha Development Agenda has much in common with its noisier cousin, The War on Terrorism. It is warfare by other means against the poor, at home and abroad.

Indeed, the weapons of war seem to have informed the negotiating strategy of the WTO's handlers. One of the most dazzling early innovations from the arms industry was to pack a brace of warheads, including some dummies, atop intercontinental ballistic missiles. When these warheads re-enter the atmosphere, the enemy's defences are spread so thin trying to pick off each individual bomb that at least one would be sure to get through. And one warhead is quite enough.

So it is with the development round. As Barry Coates, Director of the World Development Movement notes, "Developing countries have neither the capacity nor the wish to negotiate these new agreements." The civil services in the poorest countries have been pared to the bone by World Bank structural adjustment policies. Many cannot afford to have even one delegate in Geneva to monitor, negotiate and resist these organisations. Negotiating several issues at once is well beyond the means of most poor countries. The mere demand that these wrecked diplomacies 'negotiate' a cluster of new issues effectively guarantees their detonation.

Why, then, did developing countries agree to sign? Part of the reason lies in the magic of advertising. The new round hasn't been called a round. Instead what we have is a new brand round, the "Doha Development Agenda". This rebranding idea is one with which we are all familiar - you tinker with the name, but nothing else, in order to make punters believe that you've actually improved things. It has worked for corporate giants, it works for the US government. The rebranded School of the Assassins in Fort Benning Georgia is now catchily known as WHISC, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but it still trains Latin American officers in techniques of interrogation to be tried out on uncooperative citizens back home. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Flushed with the success of this little public relations coup, the US government and its corporate sponsors transformed the new WTO round into a Development Agenda. True to the spirit of the exercise, it still looks and smells the same as past efforts. And it comes with no added developing country concerns either.

If you were following the flurry of trade debate emails, your spirits might have been raised a little with the announcement that developing countries won a major concession from rich countries. The Doha declaration on TRIPS - Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights - says that public health concerns can trump patents on drugs. A variety of non-governmental organizations in Doha rejoiced. It seemed as if the WTO had effectively condoned the exporting of cheap medicines to developing countries most in need of them. This seemed to be an important concession, an article of good faith on the part of the rich concerned with the 'difficulties' of their poorer brethren.

A more sober reading of the text of the declaration soon recorked the Champagne. It turns out that the declaration merely clarifies existing provisions in the WTO patents regime, in which public health criteria can already be used to abrogate patent rights. There's nothing new in the Doha declaration to worry the pharmaceutical companies, as PhRMA, the US Pharmaceutical corporate lobby, have recently confirmed. In fact, the WTO's rules are so powerful that even rich countries are wary of them. Nothing else explains the Canadian government's swift about-face on the compulsory licencing of Cipro. If the Canadians are afraid compulsorily to licence because of the precedent this will set for the pharmaceutical industry, it's unlikely that small developing countries stand much of a chance. Only Brazil has moved ahead with a compulsory licensing initiative, despite US threats of legal action. To have the rich countries affirm what was written into an already unjust law is scant victory.

Christmas has come early for the sick in poor countries. And, yep, they got a kick in the teeth. Again.

None of this answers the question of why developing countries agreed to sign the declaration. Developing countries aren't so easily beguiled, after all - they knew that the WTO allowed for compulsory licencing in the public interest. What's going on?

Well, one reason for the signing isn't big news: since so little was given away, there was plenty of room to be able to spin the results to everyone's benefit. At a time when the big players in international politics are looking for dividends, no matter how empty, this was a fine chance to 'reinject confidence' into the international system. The Indian government were able to trumpet their international belligerence, the EU and US were able to brush aside demands on agricultural subsidy reduction, re-evaluating TRIPs and implementation issues - the rich still haven't delivered on many of the promises they made in 1994.

A compelling argument for the signing of the declaration is the liberal application of carrots and sticks to the delegates. In order to maintain their coalition against terrorism, the US and its allies have brought their external considerations of aid budgets, trade opportunities and debt forgiveness to bear with unusual vigour. Which developing country, choking on immense and illegitimate debt, wouldn't like to be a Pakistan right now, on the receiving end of international largesse, World Bank and IMF debt cancellation, and CNN's compassion?

Which developing country, not necessarily among the seventy listed by Mr Rumsfeld, would like to be Afghanistan? Yash Tandon, a seasoned activist from the SEATINI group in Harare, put it like this: "In Seattle, they had green rooms. In Doha they had boiler rooms. The rich countries lined up the poor, and took them in one by one, twisting their arms and extracting concessions with the threats of reduced aid budgets or worse."

The pressure on developing countries, the strong "No" to a new round‚ positions taken by developing countries, and the pressure on the North to come out with some sort of agreements made possible a number of feats of diplomatic prestidigitation. Consider this example: the EU and its former colonies in the Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) are party to the Cotonou agreement. Cotonou grants a series of preferential trade privileges to exporters in these countries. These privileges, as the recent dispute over bananas shows, are questionably compatible with the WTO's most-favoured nation stipulations. The ACP countries had been pushing hard for a waiver, so that these meager preferences would be accepted by the WTO. As if by magic, the WTO agreed. The real reasons are a little less impressive? It would have been exceptionally awkward to refuse this relatively small concession in a "development round"; the ACP have until 2008 to become WTO compliant in any case; there had been a great deal of campaigning and lobbying around this issue before Doha; and that the EU was looking to appear magnanimous. Magic looks better, though. The waiver has been trumpeted as a concert of Northern and Southern interests.

I'm told that the Indian government, the most initially intransigent and powerful developing country, demanded a caveat before signing the Doha declaration. They wanted clarification from the Chair of the negotiations, Stuart Harbison, on whether signing the agreement actually committed everyone to a new round, or merely to talks about talks. Here's Mr Harbison's reply. "Let me say that with the respect to the reference to an 'explicit consensus'‚ being needed, in these paragraphs, for a decision to be taken at the Fifth Session of the Ministerial Conference, my understanding is that, at that Session, a decision would indeed need to be taken, by explicit consensus, before negotiations on Trade and Investment and Trade and Competition Policy, Transparency in Government Procurement, and Trade Facilitation could proceed. In my view, this would give each Member the right to take a position on modalities that would prevent negotiations from proceeding after the Fifth Session of the Ministerial Conference until that Member is prepared to join in an explicit consensus."

Poor Mr Harbison. Beyond being forced to speak in this unutterable doublespeak, but he's clearly someone under duress. Things that you say with a gun to your head often don't count against you under more normal circumstances. And since the Indian government was asking for this clarification minutes before the end of the conference, and given that Stuart Harbison had spent a great deal of time working to make sure that the conference came out 'just right', it's not terribly surprising that he agreed to whatever they said. The subtext here is quite simple: "Yeah, whatever, just sign the damn thing and lets get out of this dustbowl". Can we expect a process of explicit consensus next time round? It is, at best, unlikely. The WTO has a track record of promises broken to the South. From implementation protocols ignored, to preliminary 'studies'‚ before negotiations waived, it is standard diplomatic practice to throw crumbs to developing countries at one negotiation, and then pick them off the table with a damp middle finger at the next.

Perhaps the best explanation as to why developing countries went ahead with the round, though, is that the mystery rests on a misconception. In Seattle, Southern governments refused to sign a declaration not because they opposed the entrenchment of neoliberalism and the elite class bias that comes with it, but because they had been roughly treated. Delegates had not been able to enter meetings, and the US negotiating team had rubbed Southern inferiority in their faces. In other words, the signing of the Doha Development Agenda is only a mystery if one thinks that developing country governments have recently taken a principled stand against neoliberalism. They haven't. The refusal to sign at Seattle was not about indignation at neoliberalism, but about the failure to treat elites as they are accustomed.

In Doha, by contrast, Mr Zoellick was a dealer, a broker of accord, a merchant of consensus. This new-found humility evidently pushed the buttons of the developing country elite. So they signed. This should come as no surprise. These are the elites that milk and pimp the majority of people in their countries. It's hard to see why putting them in five-star accommodation and making them feel important might make them less venal.

Let us be clear. The Doha declaration and the war on terrorism are one and the same process of power politicking. Woe betide those who raise their voices in dissent, for violence and silence are partners. Indeed, the "war on terrorism" and the "war on poverty" even have similar processes of suppression of dissent. It has been little reported that the WTO tried to muffle an alternative website. The operators of Gatt.org were told by their internet service provider, after pressure was applied from the WTO, that they had to take the site down because of copyright violations. The satirical site, using a slightly outdated facsimile of the WTO's own website, provides links to alternative sources of information on the WTO, as well as a modest character assassination of trade-unionist turned Director General of the WTO, Mike Moore. Clearly, someone at the WTO doesn't have a sense of humour. And wants alternatives silenced.

Fact is, trade has as little to do with development now as it did when the British South Africa Company, and the Dutch and British East India companies smothered Africa and Asia. The WTO continues to reach beyond any reasonable economic arguments about trade with its 'Trade Related' intellectual property, labour, and transparency rulings. That's okay. We're used to it. The war on terrorism has, as John Pilger has noted, nothing to do with terrorists.

Both the international trade system and the war on terrorism are technologies of entrenchment. We are sold war as patriotism. We are sold trade as efficiency. Efficiency is the Trojan horse of fascist politics. On the surface, the idea seems inviting enough - get more for your money than you currently get. This is the magic of international trade liberalisation, after all. Let consumers reap the benefits of cheap production in other places, stop subsidising your own wasteful production. You can even give the money you save from subsidies to widows and orphans.

Not that the winners from "efficiency" seem to care about widows, or indeed any women at all. Perhaps the greatest crime in the drive to efficiency, as with the drive to "international security" is the silence over the suffering of women. In the production of tea, coffee, cocoa, textiles, services and agricultural innovation, the most exploited are people of colour, and above all women.

That's not entirely fair. Free traders do have a thing or two to say about women. The stylised argument is this:

"Look! These peasant women, who previously didn't have an income are now able to earn cash, if only in the informal economy! Not only does trade continue to liberate, but it always has. Some women have benefited from trade for centuries. Cross border trade in the horn of Africa, for instance, puts women in a position of slightly more power than their counterparts elsewhere in Africa."

But there's a sleight of hand, a flick of the wrist, a twist of a dagger in this. Rural communities involved in the export industry are on a guaranteed losing streak. The price of the goods they sell has fallen over the past thirty years - indeed, the market guarantees that when demand is high, supply will rise to lower price in the long term. And to supply, all you need is to be in debt, have a tropical climate, and cheap labour. Any takers?

In other words, the prices of these things, the very things that is meant to lift the poor out of poverty, plummeted. Disenfranchised, the rural poor migrated to the city. And since there really isn't a way to grow much food there, working for cash for food became a necessity. And with some fine modelling, the informal economy has been illuminated for us. And women are now cash-rich. Development? Exactly.

Efficiency is not a democratic value. (It's hardly accidental that an 'efficient' is a nineteenth-century term for a soldier ready for combat.) Efficiency is a technology of conservatism. It is a way of asking how to wring more out of the status quo. If the status quo is just, efficiency would be a luxury we could afford to think about. But it isn't. Efficiency is an entrenchment. This is the sort of entrenchment that has been peddled under the lobotomising slogan "If we don't do X, the terrorists have already won" -- where X is exactly the same as we did before. This is the sort of conservatism that does a disservice to Conservatism. It is reactionary, mindless and stupefying. We must remain the same not because change must happen slowly, but because any change lets terrorists win.

The war on terrorism isn't really about preventing the savage acts that kill thousands every day. Trade isn't really about development. They're both ways of entrenching power, making the world safe for capital, in our names, written into the laws of our countries. The connection with law - and the majority of the WTO's employees are lawyers - is important. 'Trade as development' and 'War as peace' snap the connection between law and justice. The laws invoked to sanctify these power politics are vastly unjust, and an example of the kind of justice that people of colour experienced for a while. Apartheid, after all, had its legal justifications. It was written on peoples' bodies just as it was written in statute. They are weapons of the strong far more than they are weapons of the weak.

Sometimes, though, paper can become inconvenient for even the most powerful. The rule of law can turn into the rile of law for the rich as much as for the poor. The solution? Ignore it. This is what the US has done to its own constitution and trade commitments over the past decade. The constitution has finally made the transition from parchment to toilet paper. John Ashcroft's ransacking of attorney-client privilege, allowing him to monitor attorney-client interactions without telling anyone, violates both the Fourth and Sixth Amendments.

Let no-one say that all it takes to kill one of these outrages is 'open democratic debate'. There is no such thing. The self professed home of democracy is run on the dollar-a-vote principle. Such politics rests on our consent, though. When we withhold it, we reclaim the power that is justly ours. It's important to remember that the battle against the corporatisation of medicine was won not in Doha, but through large-scale international mobilization, education and protest. The declaration on public health was a forgone conclusion only after a great deal of hard work by groups like the Treatment Action Campaign and ActUp! Philadelphia and New York. The victory is well worth the struggle, but is far from over. After all, the horror of 'international trade as development' still remains. We should not forget that we've only won what was taken away from us by the WTO in the first instance. And when we roll back the police state in the US and elsewhere, we'll only be reclaiming the liberty that was snatched from us.<

It is time for a healthy dose of pessimism of the intellect. There are tough times ahead. In many places around the world, an article like this could constitute criminal incitement. You can make a bomb out of paper. As the Gandhians among us know, you can also make a weapon out of truth. To update Orwell, telling the truth is now a terrorist act. So if we don't become guerrillas armed with truth, satyagrahi? Well, then the real terrorists have already won.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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