GENTECH archive


WTO Protesters Punish The World's Poor

"A man with bread has several problems and for a man with no bread, there
is only one problem!"

9 December 1999

"WTO Protesters Punish The World's Poor"

The protestors and politicians who made a shambles of the World Trade
Organization meeting in Seattle last week did a terrible disservice to the
world's poor. This includes U.S. President Bill Clinton, who "sympathized"
with the protestors' misguided concerns. Their narrow interests and pressure
tactics sabotaged an important summit that could have substantially opened
international trade and contributed to reforms in the economies of many
developing countries.

I observed the talks and was shocked not only by the riotous atmosphere, but
also by the protesters' misconceptions about trade, the WTO and the
developing world. As an Indian national, I know only too well how lack of
trade, investment and freedom keeps the world's developing nations in a
state of perpetual poverty and environmental degradation. Sadly, the largely
middle-class Americans who trashed Seattle last week had little if any
comprehension of this fact.

The range of free trade opponents assembled in Seattle was truly amazing. It
spanned almost the entire political spectrum--organized labor, militant
greens, animal rights activists, self-proclaimed champions of consumer
interests, anti-immigrant bigots, anarcho-nihilists and sundry professional
protestors. They were all united in their belief that consumers would be
better off without choice.

The protesters' reckless ideas might have been amusing if they weren't so
damaging. For instance, at a time when the U.S. is enjoying near full
employment, with various sectors of the U.S. economy contracting out many
jobs to cheaper workforces abroad, labor unions marched through Seattle
demanding protection of jobs that are in low demand but are highly paid.
Indeed, one longshoreman from California, who came with his wife to express
their solidarity, said he earned $100,000 a year. In many parts of the world
with little or no trade, his counterparts would be lucky to get 2% of that.
There were other more absurd examples of the protesters' ignorance. There
was the young man wearing Nike sneakers kicking in a Nike sign in front of a
store. Beyond the irony of his choice of footwear, he was oblivious of the
fact that shoes--forget about Nike--are a luxury that is beyond the reach of
millions around the world who go barefoot. Then there was the young lady who
was looting a downtown shop while talking on her cell phone. Could
protesters like these have any concept of the poor living conditions in
India, where a country of one billion, after half a century of economic and
trade restrictions, can manage only 15 million telephones, let alone cell

Quite a few of the protesters wore ski masks or gas masks long before the
police actually fired tear gas shells, giving the impression that they
expected or wanted to stir up trouble. Many chanted their slogans simply to
raise the level of hysteria and were not willing to discuss the issues they
were raising. However, even in that chaotic and charged environment, there
were a few who sought to engage in a dialogue. And in doing so they revealed
their misconceptions about free trade and the WTO.

They spoke of the need to "democratize" the WTO, but failed to recognize the
legitimacy of many democratic governments as members of the WTO. Indeed,
some wanted to enlist the "non-democratic" WTO to help "democratize" foreign
governments. They spoke of their desire to make the functioning of the WTO
more transparent and participative. But many on the streets had refused to
complete the simple formality of registering themselves as NGOs or activists
or even journalists, which would have enabled them to participate in some of
the proceedings.

Many were angry that the WTO sought to undermine national sovereignty. They
were aggrieved that the dispute settlement body of the WTO had ruled against
the U.S. on the issue of turtle exclusion devices to be installed by foreign
shrimp farmers. Clearly, they did not want to recognize the sovereignty of
nations other than the U.S., and would prefer the WTO impose U.S. standards
on others despite the obvious neo-colonial overtones.

I was amazed at the level of concern over food security for the poor in
developing countries. But what the protestors failed to realize is that
farmers in developing countries have to carry the twin burden of draconian
domestic regulations and lack of access to international markets. Because
they are forced to sell their produce at below market prices, they have
little incentive to grow more crops or invest in agriculture. This includes
India, where over two-thirds of the population is still depend on
agriculture for their livelihood.

The attempt to demonize biotechnology and genetically modified organisms was
perhaps the best indicator of the true agenda of many of the activists: a
desire to impose their own Luddite vision on the rest of the human race.
Choice is anathema to these activists. They accuse the corporations of
seeking to manipulate the WTO and subvert national sovereignty while they
themselves are guilty of an even greater crime--seeking to subvert the
consumer's rights by ramming their own agenda down his throat.
In their desire for power without a mandate or responsibility, Seattle's
anti-trade advocates sought to ignore the conclusive economic evidence: Free
trade improves the lives of the poor. It produces competition in the
marketplace, and this forces producers to strive to improve the quality of
their product and lower prices in order to retain their competitive
advantage. The improved productivity helps laborers by improving their
wages. The better products help the consumer by offering them a wider range
of choices at competitive prices.

And as for the environmentalists, improvements in environment and social
conditions are like any other value-added products. As the consumers move up
the economic ladder, they are better placed to afford these amenities. If
the Seattle talks had succeeded they would have contributed to economic
growth that in turn would have contributed to improvements in environmental
and social conditions in the world's poorest countries.

It is ironic that due to the lobbying efforts of green, consumer, labor and
other groups that claim to care about developing countries, the talks
failed. As a result, developing economies will grow less quickly, the
environment will suffer, and more children throughout the developing world,
including India, will remain impoverished.

Copyright 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Barun S. Mitra
"Where the mind is without fear..."
Julian L. Simon Centre
259, J-Block (2nd floor), Saket, New Delhi 110017. India

Address for Correspondence -
96/10 Pushp Vihar Sector I
New Delhi 110 017