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.


Nina Shapiro
December 3, 1999 2:45PM (UTC)

The weekend before the World Trade Organization standoff, I sat in
Seattles 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?

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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 weeks 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 dont 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, "well 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.

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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 WTOs "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 worlds wealth. Even Martin Khor, president of the
Malaysian think tank Third World Network and one of the protest movements
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.

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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 industrys 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 Indias billion-dollar
high-tech industry that emerged after Microsoft, IBM and other American
firms laid a foundation there. Thats why Lipenga and others say, "We want
foreign investment. We need it."

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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 Indias 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 dont
necessarily coincide with Third World development.

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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 whats 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 weekends teach-in, used her platform to refute charges of
protectionism. The countrys 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
weeks events in Seattle?

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Nina Shapiro

Nina Shapiro is a staff writer for the Seattle Weekly.

MORE FROM Nina Shapiro

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