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Worldview gap erupts in Seattle

NCR Staff

For those wearing the business suits to Seattle’s World Trade Organization meeting, the most serious challenge is to make the existing system work, said Franciscan Sr. Mary Plante, who is attending the conference.

But in terms of solving global economic disparities, the more serious problem in Seattle in November, she said, was the gap between the worldview of the nongovernmental organizations -- NGOs -- marching on the streets and that of top World Trade Organization --WTO -- officials inside the meeting.

It was a gap best summarized, said Plante, by WTO Director General Michael Moore’s casual dismissal of nongovernmental organizations at an opening symposium.

“We weren’t listened to, we were talked to,” said Plante, a full-time staffer with the Franciscans International NGO, based in New York. “Moore, in effect, told us, ‘We’ve heard nothing new, go back to your countries.’ ”

NGOs are legally accredited public interest groups that try to influence policy at the United Nations and other international bodies.

But when the international NGOs do go home, said Plante, they’ll have new names in a network determined to open up the WTO to the worsening world impoverishment its policies are creating.

Those names were of the people by the thousands who attended sessions at the nearby Methodist church, who sat in on Women’s Caucuses and who joined in marches urging WTO attention to the implications for poor people of the policies it adopts on behalf of the world’s multinational financial, industrial and services corporations.

Said Alexandra Spielboch, in Seattle with the Washington, D.C.-based Center of Concern group, and panelist at a Dec. 1 Women’s Caucus session, Americans “have a tendency to focus on U.S. market problems,” but those pale compared to issues raised by “caucus panelists such as women from banana farms in the Caribbean, maquiladoras on the Mexican border and indigenous groups in the Philippines.”

The Center of Concern’s Adrian Dominican Sr. Maria Riley, providing a backgrounder to the World Trade Organization meeting, assessed the inequality built into the WTO system this way: “The smaller countries have the access to WTO, but they don’t have the means to influence it. Some simply don’t have the technical know-how.

“The U.S. mission, meanwhile,” said Riley, “is full of trade lawyers” who can cover every WTO committee meeting to press the U.S. preferences.

“The United States likes to say that a rules-based system creates a level playing field,” Riley said. “The field may be level, but it’s like sending in your Little League team to play baseball against the World Series winners. There is no leveling when resources are so unevenly distributed.”

This small country inequality, she said, is one of the moral issues the religious NGO community faces; another, she said, concerns the patenting of life forms.

Nationwide, Catholic groups analyze various aspects of WTO activity with dismay. Dolores Brookes of the religious community-funded Eighth Day Center in Chicago, brings WTO close to home. “WTO power affects local decisions. If Chicago has a law that a certain percentage of contracts should go to women and minorities, a particular country could challenge that and abrogate it.

“The U.S. had high standards for oil clean-up, Venezuela low standards. Venezuela sued, and now U.S. corporations changed to the lower standards,” she said.

Another issue, said Brookes, is secrecy. “You have hard fought-over environmental decisions, like [turtle-safe fishing nets], and a three-man group meeting in secret can make the declaration -- [you must] abide by their rulings or be heavily fined. This is not the democratic way to do things.”

Riley said the nation-states going into Seattle faced many highly unresolved issues and little unanimity of view.

WTO was incomplete at the start, explained Riley. “Several agendas -- agriculture, services and parts of the TRIPs, Trade in Intellectual Property Rights -- were unfinished at the time of the signing of the Uruguay Round in 1994 that created WTO,” she said.

“The global South says there are so many problems with implementing WTO that review, correction and reform of WTO is needed. The benefits of global trade, they say, have to be more equitably shared.

“The U.S. absolutely says no, we cannot open up any of the agreements, because they were very ‘balanced-off’ agreements. They may have been trade-off agreements,” continued Riley, “but they certainly have not proved to be equitable.”

The rich United States and the poor South are pitted against each other, said Riley, on environment, labor and textiles, for example. “The global South has a legitimate concern, I believe,” said Riley, “that the U.S. has used its internal anti-dumping laws as a means of protectionism. There are unresolved questions about patenting life forms -- some poor nations don’t even have a system for classifying their plants.”

Further, “textiles are important to the South, because they’re labor intensive, require relatively simple technology and are easy industries for the South to put in place. But while the U.S. follows the letter of the law, it doesn’t follow the spirit in opening up the U.S. market. For example, they’ve removed [textile] quotas from countries that weren’t filling their quotas anyway.”

Back in Seattle, Plante said NGOs, because they were so diverse in their interests, were sending mixed messages both to the World Trade Organization and the public. But “the issue is that WTO officials are basically trade ministers. They are not connected with social issues or people. They don’t know how to deal with a democratic process; there’s no place for the NGOs’, for the peoples’ input. The real concerns are basically not getting heard.”

The World Trade Organization did attempt to treat the accredited NGO delegates in Seattle fairly. The NGO delegates received the same box of wine and free umbrella the WTO officials received, and were invited to the same cocktail parties.

But while WTO officials stayed in hotels like the Westin, where a single room with a king-sized bed goes for $300-plus a night, the NGO delegates were lobbying on behalf of people for whom $300 is their annual per capita income.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999