Readers Write: Hong Kong WTO Edition

Note: Staff writer Joshua Holland's excellent coverage of the Hong Kong WTO meeting was made possible because of the generous donations from AlterNet readers who picked up the tab for his trip. Thanks again to all of you who contributed for our WTO coverage.

Last week, I attended the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong. The air was filled with tension inside the convention center, as rich and poor countries with very different economies struggled to find common ground. It was just as intense outside on the streets as thousands of grassroots activists laid out their grievances against the WTO.

AlterNet readers had questions to ask and plenty of their own observations to make. Some were in the comments, some came to my e-mail box. The following is a list of responses to some of them.

Qrswave asked: "What happens to the people of developing nations if this all falls apart?"

JH: The sword hanging over the developing countries' heads from Secretary-General Pascal Lamy's opening speech to the last night's action in the green rooms was that if a deal didn't get done, the WTO as an institution would be endangered.

Many of us think that wouldn't be a bad thing -- that the WTO system is beyond reform. But most of the leadership of the developing countries are afraid of the answer to Qrswave's question: namely, they don't want to find out what would happen if there were no forum in which they could bring pressure on the wealthy states to play fair.

The emergence of a large new bloc of countries working towards common goals -- the "G-110" -- may be part of the equation. As Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said, "why blow up the system after all that work" finding common ground?

Julz2005 said of my report that there wasn't wide-spread violence by protesters and the police overreacted with plenty of tear gas and not much visible logic: "My observations exactly. I was as close to the HK convention centre as I could get last night. Stayed there for a couple of hours but couldn't get anywhere -- the area was totally locked-down by hundreds of riot police.

"These reports capture my experience here too: the media-exaggeration (especially the over-the-top local coverage: feels like the news angle was pre-written months ago), the weird police actions and preparations, and the whole feeling of the event."

JH: I've received several e-mails from representatives of groups that had members among the 900 people detained by the police Saturday. In typical fashion, just 14 have been charged with anything so far. Chief Timoney in Miami popularized the expression, "you may beat the rap, but you won't beat the ride" -- meaning police can arrest as many as they want and then drop the charges later.

The following from e-mailer Asha, who is with the Asian Pacific Women's forum on Law and Development (APWLD):

"In the middle of the night, 900 WTO protesters were arrested, among them around 45 Thais and around 20 Indonesians, 5 of which are women. Yeni Rosa Damayanti was one of the women leading the Women's March Against WTO two days ago. She is now one of the detainees and is our sole contact for the Indonesians detained. Yeni has been sending SMS messages to APWLD members updating us of their situation. She has informed us that the Indonesians have been moved by police vehicles from the Kwun Tong court . At the time of writing, the Indonesians are being held in an undisclosed building and have not been given any food or water since the time of arrest.

"They are yet to be informed of what building it is and where it is located. It is uncertain as to whether this non-disclosure is due to a language barrier or if it is a deliberate tactic of non-disclosure of information. We believe that this is the Hong Kong Government's way of weakening the intensifying resistance against the WTO. The anti-WTO groups had been planning on holding a large united rally today at 2pm. This is likely to be a method of dispersing the strength of the international movement against WTO."

Chaoslegs wrote: "I would like to know about the intellectual property issues, particularly the drug patents, and those awful genetic agricultural patents mentioned in that other AlterNet article today, 'The Gene Rush.'"

JH: The reason I didn't have much on this is that the intellectual property deal was put on the back burner during Hong Kong.

Prior to the meeting, we saw what has become a regular ritual: a grand announcement that they had successfully dealt with the "medicines issue" in such a way that the poorest countries would be able to buy generic drugs for killers like AIDS and malaria. We first heard that in 2003 before Cancun.

The problem is, as usual, in the details: the process of getting an exemption to the intellectual property rules to produce a generic drug is cumbersome, and based on a drug-by-drug and country-by-country basis that, according to Doctors Without Borders, "discourages economies of scale and slows down price reductions." The NGO notes that "since 2003 we have tried to place orders under the [2003] decision" but so far "not one patient has benefited from its use" and only four countries -- Canada, Norway, India and China -- have adopted the measure in their domestic laws. In other words, the medicines deal has resulted in a hollow press conference.

But the intellectual property rules were very much on the minds of those outside the Convention Center, especially the farmers. That's because of the patented seeds Chaoslegs mentioned.

The issue of "certified" or patented seeds goes back for some time. I sat down with three members of rice NGOs -- two from the Philippines and one from Cambodia. Jesse Reyes Campos of the Philippines' Ricewatch in Action Network said, "We are rice eaters in the Philippines. About 85 percent of our people depend on rice as a staple. It's also an important source of employment; about three million people make a living at it. And the majority of the producers are small farmers -- we're not talking about large plantations like with bananas or pineapples that are owned by big multinationals."

Elvira Quintela from the Alternative Forum for Research in Mindanao told me about seeds. "[The intellectual property agreement] will have a serious implication for food security. There are multinational corporations moving into seeds production. Basically, with the arrival of companies like the Sterling Seed Corporation, they are actually promoting and producing the certified seeds -- the hybrid seed -- which means that the farmers can't recrop it in the next planting season. So the farmers have to buy seeds each new season. The program of our government is to promote these seeds; they give subsidies to the farmers but in the form of certified seeds. Which are not really helpful to the farmers in terms of controlling their seed production."

According to Azra Sayeed of the Pakistani NGO Roots for Equity, India is attempting to pass a law that would fine small farmers -- most of them women using traditional techniques -- $600 dollars if they're caught with seeds that aren't certified. "Where in the world would these people get this much money?" she asked.

There's been an enormous amount of controversy around these issues. According to Vandana Shiva, the big agribusinesses are responding to the backlash with technology: "they've learned that if there's resistance to certified seeds, you just engineer a 'terminator gene' into the crops so farmers can't re-seed."

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has a new report about the shaky science of GMOs, which you can download here.

Philame said: "I'd like to hear more about the feminist NGOs represented there and their issues.

"Some info on cross-border solidarities between NGOs in richer and poorer countries -- for example between agricultural NGOs from EU and Asia/Africa -- would be great. Alliances between feminist orgs across regions would also be interesting."

JH: There are a number of them. For pure economic analysis, I'd recommend the International Gender and Trade Network. Their studies mirror the work of feminist economists generally: in virtually every society there exists a division of labor by sex, so public policies have differential impacts on women and men.

In less developed countries, trade deals impact the economic sphere inhabited by women disproportionately. Women gather wood and water and collect seeds. Women often provide the lion's share of agricultural labor. And women (and children) benefit disproportionately from the use of public services. You can download a PDF they put out here.

IGTN is good, but the personal is political, and I was really moved by the Women's March organized by the NGO I mentioned above, the Asia Pacific Women's forum on Law and Development. They brought 82 women from all over the Pacific to Hong Kong. Among them were representatives of some of the poorest countries, and these were some of the most marginalized people in those countries.

APWLD is a network of over a 100 grassroots organizations. With Philame's question in mind, I asked if they were working closely with women living in the advanced economies. The sense I got was they're building bridges between rich and poor countries on sex workers and human trafficking. At the WTO, only two of the APWLD's projects were there: their Rural and Indigenous Women's project and the project on Women and the Environment, both of which were geared towards developing countries.

I have to recommend a quirky hero of mine here. Marilyn Waring's "If Women Counted" is the best feminist analysis of what's wrong with the ways we view economics out there. Here's an interview with Waring, she's excellent.

E-mailer Janet M. said we at AlterNet were peddling "misinformation," after reading Deborah James' "Corporate Globalization in Crisis":

"I have seen articles on your site from time to time and generally agreed with them but this piece is way off base. Globalization is not in crisis, in fact it is doing very well indeed and, in the process, is helping to bring the poor of the world out of poverty. Please read IN DEFENSE OF GLOBALIZATION by Jagdish Bhagwati, Oxford University Press, 2004. Bhagwati understands globalization a lot better than you do, probably because he is "a master economist" and has been studying globalization and its actual effects on the people of the planet for many years. He teaches at Columbia and has served as Special Advisor to the UN on Globalization. His book has glowing commentary from people as diverse as Hernando De Soto and Paul Samuelson. I dare you to read it and then tell the truth on AlterNet."

JH: I wrote Janet back saying that "globalization" is so vague as to be meaningless, and that James' piece was specifically about the corporate model being pushed at the WTO. She responded:

"If Jagdish Bhagwati doesn't do it for you, how about Martin Wolf in his 2004 book, "How Globalization Works." He says, on page 141, in the Section, Why The Critics Are Wrong,

"'Never before have so many people -- or so large a proportion of the world's population -- enjoyed such large rises in their standards of living. Meanwhile GDP per head in high income countries (with 25% of the world's population) rose by 2.1% per year between 1975 and 2001 and by only 1.7% per year between 1990 and 2001. This, then was a period of partial convergence: the incomes of poor developing countries, with more than half the world's population, grew substantially faster than those of the world's richest countries.'

"The rest of the chapter, using World Bank data, goes on to explain in detail how global inequality can be falling. To adapt Bill Clinton's campaign slogan, 'its the growth, stupid'. Rapid economic growth in poor countries with half the world's population has powerful effects on the only sort of inequality that matters, that among individuals. It has similarly dramatic effects on world poverty.

"Wolf, who is Chief Economics Commentator and Associate Editor of the Financial Times, and Bhagwati, an Indian who has seen and experienced world poverty first hand, share a definition of "globalization" with much of the rest of the economically literate world so I don't see it as being as "vague" a term as you do.

JH: The short answer is that Deborah James used more recent World Bank data than either author Janet cites. According to Tufts University's Frank Ackerman:
What a difference two years makes. In the discussion leading up to the WTO negotiations in Cancún in 2003, it was common to hear about the hundreds of billions of dollars of benefits available from trade liberalization. Exact numbers and definitions varied, but $500 billion of benefits to the developing world was a widely quoted figure. By 2005, leading up to the next round of negotiations in Hong Kong, it was difficult to find estimates of benefits to the developing world as high as $100 billion -- and easy to find figures much lower than that.
So we're "misleading" you by giving you the latest World Bank estimates. But that's too easy.

I've actually read both books, and while I have quite a bit of respect for Bhagwati's research, if not his conclusions, Wolf is a smarter-than-usual hack who writes about economics for the Financial Times. Just last week, a reporter from that publication admitted to me that the FT is "not neutral" on matters of trade. Wolf's book is full of straw men arguments and conclusions based on aggregates.

The truth that his cherry-picked data obscures is how irregular trade gains, economic growth and poverty alleviation have been. The promises we've heard have never been fulfilled. Between 1995-2001, global trade increased by around 30 percent, but the share of trade among the least developed countries actually declined during the period (UNDP data). If you look at gains from the 1990s, most were concentrated in the wealthy countries and newly industrialized states. Only one of 17 advanced technology economies didn't grow over the period. But almost half of the "traditional" economies — mixed agricultural economies -- contracted during that time.

And in terms of the poor, most of the world's poverty alleviation in the past 15 years has been in defiance of the neoliberal policies advanced by the WTO -- most notably in China behind huge trade barriers. People like Wolf don't mention that -- they count China's growth as evidence of their own model.

What's more, it's clearly not "the growth stupid": we've seen countries -- especially in Eastern Europe -- that saw their GDP growing simultaneously with growth in their poverty rates during the 1990s. As Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out, one of the fatal flaws of the current model is that it views GDP growth as an end unto itself and not as a means to an end: namely greater development.

I wanted to highlight this letter because it is typical of the arguments the so-called "free traders" always make and the attitudes they often have. They start with the frankly odd premise that trade deals are supposed to be geared towards development in the first place, that's followed by the assertion that the data backs up the premise -- even though it doesn't -- and it ends with the charge that the critics are economically "illiterate" -- that if they'd just read a book or two by some classical economists they'd understand what is so obvious. That hubris is there whether they know what they're talking about or not.

No wonder there's such frustration on the part of so many.

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