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U.S. and WTO must embrace free trade

BJ Strew | Sunday, September 14, 2003

The brand-name products you buy, from cardigans to coffee, almost certainly come from a wealthy public corporation based in a wealthy country. Chances are this company is a sprawling multinational, pushing its profit-driven agenda across the globe, with help from the World Trade Organization and the bloc of First World countries at its helm.

Yesterday, the WTO wrapped up its fifth Ministerial Conference in the tropical resort city of Cancun, where global leaders from both developed and developing countries convened to discuss international trade. Perhaps the most hotly debated matter was fair trade, an issue with which the WTO has a less than stellar history.

Because the First World stays its course, favoring “free trade” over fair trade, the vast corporations meet little opposition when pushing their agendas. This is a bad thing, but for whom? Obviously not for the rich G8 countries – it’s bad for the developing countries of the Third World, because they can’t push back. “Free trade” is still a myth.

I would like to do away with this dichotomy, a Cold War relic, but it remains useful in underscoring the rift between the First and Third Worlds, which widens daily. It is strikingly clear which side comprises which nations: in one country, someone gets $2 for making a pair of trainers; in another, some middle-schooler pays $67 for them.

An admixture of protectionist tariffs and trade-distorting subsidies is to blame for the rift, taking a perilous toll on developing countries. On top of this peculiar combo, the developed countries hypocritically compel their developing counterparts to liberalize. Desperate for foreign investment, poorer nations must kowtow to First World demands, often prompting a regulatory “race to the bottom” that endangers the environment and exploits workers in the Third World. This is the brutal conception of so-called free trade trumpeted by neoliberals.

Perhaps most distressing is the fact that First World farmers are lavishly subsidized – at $1 billion a day. Since the Great Depression, American farmers have received increasingly hefty sums of federal assistance. In fact, a recent farm bill upped subsidies by 70 percent, with the lion’s share pocketed by the wealthiest producers. This trend is mirrored across the pond, where the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy accounts for 85 percent of the agricultural subsidies worldwide, more or less supplying welfare to an elite handful of European farmers. This practice lethally robs the Third World of opportunity and the ability to compete, with poverty and social unrest proceeding therefrom.

With such an asymmetric advantage, the developed countries end up with a surplus of produce, which they “dump” in the Third World markets. This immense oversupply drives down the price of local goods, devastating the local economy in turn. Not only does it make poor farmers (and countries) poorer, it often forces them off their own land.

Tariffs, on the other hand, offer another obstacle to fair trade. If Africa, East Asia, South Asia and Latin America increased their share of world exports by just one percent, 128 million could be lifted out of poverty.

Many coffee farmers earn less than it costs for them to grow. Do your part: ask for Fair Trade coffee wherever you can – at Starbucks, at Reckers, anywhere. Show the demand exists for goods ethically produced and environmentally friendly.

On a related note, every year, 14 million die from treatable diseases. Denied access to simple, anti-retroviral medicine, parents in the Third World pass HIV on to their children. This is just one example of the immorality of the global patent rules. Any decent person believes that public health trumps patent protection. But the pharmaceutical lobbies on K Street in Washington beg to differ, claiming they must be compensated for the funds they pour into research and development, at the annual cost of 14 million lives.

It is a little disconcerting, and perhaps testimony to leanings of the media across the board, that injustice on such a scale goes unreported. It verges on media blackout. And without coverage, the media become party to the continued injustice.

So if this is news to you, you should already be wondering how this came to pass – and why it continues to. You should, at least, be troubled by the unfairness of it.

You should not dismiss this as a bee buzzing in the ultra-liberal bonnet – anyone who abhors injustice ought to be outraged and ought to know that radical change is needed here. You should not dismiss this as a topic too remote to warrant a moment of attention – anyone reading this undoubtedly reaps the benefits of the unjust practice of “free trade,” directly or indirectly. You should not dismiss this, period.

The exploitation of the Third World by the First World must not carry on. For world trade to work for the poor as it does for the rich, fair trade must be established. Sign petitions, buy Fair Trade goods, reject neoliberalism at the ballots, write your senators, do anything you can to speed up the process.

BJ Strew is a junior English major. His column appears every other Monday. Contact him at wstrew@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.