I was one of those teargassed at Seattle when the World Trade Organization last met in 1999, and felt the collective outrage and sense of empowerment that we got from standing up to the world's economic bullies. So now when I see how little protest there was outside the latest WTO ministerial at Doha in Qatar, with only Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in the harbor, I have quite mixed emotions. Granted, visa and travel restrictions in Qatar kept all but the most determined activists away. But even so, there seems to be less outrage just two years after Seattle, despite the fact very little has changed.
On the one hand, I understand that you can't stand outside the gates with your placards and your papier-maché puppets forever. If you want real change, there comes a point when you have to roll up your sleeves and find practical solutions to the many problems of current trade policies. That's why people like Martin Khor, director of the Third World Network (and contributor to my book Take it Personally) were inside working with developing nations to get them a fairer deal. And it sounds like some progress was made, particularly on drug patenting. Mind you, that's hardly surprising, when the United States has just threatened to ride roughshod over patenting laws to get hold of the anti-anthrax antibiotic Cipro. I would imagine that rather compromises its objections to cheap anti-AIDS drugs being manufactured for HIV-riddled sub-Saharan Africa.
On the other hand, I'm not sure the developed world has really learned the lessons of Seattle. They are still trying to bully developing nations into giving investors access to their markets without the reciprocal opening of developed world markets. So the barriers to US textiles markets look set to stay as do EU agriculture subsidies, meanwhile Oxfam calculates the cost of unfair trade to the developing world at $1.3 billion per day. This doesn't sound like the "development round" of trade that was promised.
Not only that, but when I went to Nicaragua earlier in the year I saw for myself what the panacea of "free trade" the WTO espouses currently means. In the free-trade zone there I met sweatshop workers paid less than $5 a day to make jeans and shirts which were exported to the US to be sold at huge markups. Their work afforded them and their families the privilege of living in 10-foot-square, dirt-floored shacks, with no plumbing or sanitation. No surprise, then, that China, with its sweatshops and human-rights record, is coming to join the fun and has just been welcomed into the WTO fold with open arms.
I do hope my suspicions are unfounded and the negotiations bring fair, as well as free, trade. These days I think we are tired of bullies; it's time free trade started to show us more of the better world it promises rather than simply wringing concessions from those countries with least to concede.