The real enemies of the poor

G-8 defenders tried to depict Genoa protesters as affluent and out of touch, but the anti-globalization movement is wringing aid out of rich nations -- over Bush's shameful objections.

Published July 23, 2001 11:46PM (EDT)

The needless point-blank police shooting of a protester was not the only outrageous official act as the leaders of the world's seven rich countries (plus Russia) met in Genoa, Italy, over the weekend. In a cynical ploy aimed at buttressing their own crumbling credibility and at isolating the growing ranks of protest against the emerging global economy, the leaders pretended that they were the champions of the world's poor, fighting on their behalf against the 50,000 to 100,000 people in the streets who were the real enemies of the poor.

"For those who want to shut down trade," Bush said before the G-8 meetings, obviously alluding to the expected protesters, "I say you are hurting poor countries." Echoing the theme, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times cheerleader for globalization, tried to divide the protesters into two camps, one composed of anarchists and Marxists along with naive students duped by "protectionist" trade unions who simply oppose globalization, and another made up by environmentalists, anti-poverty groups and others who "understand that globalization, properly managed, can be the poor's best ladder out of misery."

Both Bush and Friedman not only deliberately misrepresented the protesters and their aims but, more important, misrepresented what the current form of globalization is doing to the world's poor. Indeed, the global elite would not be making even the modest gestures they offered over the weekend to the poor if it were not for the pressures from the protesters in the rich countries (since they find it easier to ignore -- or shoot -- protesters in the poor countries).

It is a rich irony that Friedman is now writing about "managing" globalization, when his argument for years has been that globalization can't and shouldn't be managed -- poor countries should just put on the "golden straitjacket" imposed by the market and international financial institutions and blast off to prosperity. Environmentalists, unionists, sweatshop protesters, proponents of debt cancellation and the host of other campaigners drawn to protests like that in Genoa have long argued for management of the global economy to raise living standards, guarantee human and worker rights, protect the environment and expand democracy. Indeed, the main division among protesters -- other than the deadly serious question of tactics -- is what it will take to manage the new global economy so that working people in both rich and poor countries can have a voice and the prospect of a better life. It's not a debate over whether there should be trade or other international exchanges.

The track record of globalization for most of the world's poor has been grim. And where Bush's policies don't simply reinforce the worst of the status quo, they would actually make matters worse. Despite the tempering effects of the G-8's other members, the collective actions they took were pitifully inadequate either to help the poor or to stop the rising tide of discontent in their own countries.

Some poor people in a few poor countries have improved their standard of living over the past three decades of rapid globalization, even taking into account the big setbacks from economic crises in recent years in countries like Thailand and Korea. But by most standards inequality among countries and within countries -- at all levels of development -- has grown rapidly. Africa and the south Asian subcontinent have become poorer since the late 1960s, especially if the destruction and depletion of natural resources are taken into account, according to a recent study by Cambridge University economics professor Partha Dasgupta. Even worse, the International Labor Organization in Geneva reports a rise in slavery and forced labor, ranging from road clearing for global oil companies in Burma to producing cacao beans in West Africa for rich-country chocoholics.

Recently economist Mark Weisbrot and colleagues at Washington's Center for Economic and Policy Research tallied "The Scorecard on Globalization 1980-2000," comparing those decades with the previous two decades. It isn't pretty. Economic growth has slowed down, most of all in the poorest countries (where the economy in many cases is actually shrinking). Progress toward increasing life expectancy has slowed down in all but the healthiest one-fifth of the world, and progress in reducing infant mortality has slowed as well. In most of the world, the rate of growth in school enrollment has also slowed. Globalization may not be the cause -- it's certainly not the sole cause -- of all this slowdown in human progress, especially for the poor, but it clearly hasn't guaranteed improvement in their standard of living.

Anecdotally the story remains much the same. In recent years many American jeans manufacturers fled to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor and the NAFTA agreement, especially when unions began to organize workers and demand enforcement of minimum wages and other federal labor standards at companies like Guess. But the Financial Times reported in early July that there have been layoffs of nearly one-fifth of the new jeans manufacturing labor force as "cost-conscious retailers ... go to China and the Caribbean in search of cheaper alternatives."

Are we really supposed to believe that protesters who demand that companies pay living wages, recognize the rights of workers to organize unions and not flee when workers try to raise living standards are really the enemies of the poor, as Bush maintains?

The G-8 leaders did pledge to contribute $1.3 billion to a global health fund to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and launch a development plan for Africa that would "make globalization work." But United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan indicated that the health fund contribution was inadequate. Also, despite the dismal record of the G-8's modest program for relief of foreign debts owed by very poor countries, the leaders simply continued their old strategy. But judging from their record, they would not have taken even these steps without popular pressure, which first won some debt relief commitments a few years ago.

As bad as the G-8 performance was, Bush's was even worse. While other countries pushed for cheaper production of AIDS and other drugs than is permissible even under rules of the World Trade Organization, Bush was fighting to protect the intellectual property rights of American drug makers at the cost of the lives of the world's poor. While the other countries wanted to press forward with the Kyoto Protocol, Bush continued to reject even that flawed attempt to fight global warming (as he also threw up obstacles to funding the U.N. Global Environmental Facility, which funds renewable energy and sustainable development in poor countries).

The poor countries are likely to be the most heavily hurt by global warming and least able to cope with climatic changes.

Bush has also resisted efforts by the rest of the G-8 to rein in the tax havens and offshore banking centers that play havoc with government economic policies and to fund programs to help the poor or workers displaced by globalization in the rich countries.

While Bush appeared to be generous in proposing that the World Bank give grants rather than loan money to poor countries, his strategy would soon deplete bank resources, and Bush gave no indication that the United States, which currently is the stingiest industrial country in direct aid to developing countries, would be increasing its level of grants. Bush's resurrection of the missile defense plan will eat up billions that could be used for healthcare, development, education and other needs of poor countries (or many needy Americans), while encouraging increased military spending by other countries around the world -- hardly what the poor need.

The protesters (regardless of their tactics) were not fooled by the G-8 leaders' protestations of concerns for the poor. Most of the public in the industrial countries is not likely to be duped either. "One hundred thousand people don't get upset unless there is a problem in their hearts and spirits," French president Jacques Chirac said after hearing of the police killing of protester Carlo Giuliani, the son of an Italian labor union leader. More than 100,000 people are upset, and the problem is not just in their hearts and minds but in the system of corporate globalization that has delivered so much to the world's rich and so little to the poor.

It is the rich nations' leaders acting in the interests of major transnational corporations, not the protesters, who are the real enemies of not only the billions of people living on less than $1 a day but also working people in their own countries.

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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