For the world’s poor, the free market is a cruel master. Recession may preoccupy the industrially advanced world, but developing countries are grappling with far more serious economic worries: which are of the free market’s making. Economic deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation may delight the plutocrats, but they are having a disastrous impact on the poor of the world’s poorest countries and are heaping social misery on to the already most benighted of our planet’s inhabitants.
World leaders and statesmen met in cities as far afield as Genoa, New York and Zanzibar last week, to try and grapple with some of these most intractable social and economic problems. The most high profile, but, judging by its agenda, the least serious, was the summit meeting in the Italian port city of Genoa of the eight most industrially advanced countries in the world — the Western powers, Russia and Japan. But not only was the agenda in Genoa banal, at times its preference for platitudes over plans was outright offensive.
The G-8 leaders, for instance, listened gravely to accounts of Africa’s efforts to pull itself up by the bootstraps, paying close attention to the South African Millennium African Programme. But instead of encouraging these impulses in meaningful ways with action and, God forbid, money, the powers waffled loftily about Africa’s efforts then, apart from a few vague and condescending hints about future support, did nothing. This is no big shock.
The shaming failure of earlier G-8 summits to tackle issues of poverty and debt in the Third World had already set the tone for this year’s insipid efforts. The United States in particular, in many an international forum, obstinately refuses to ease the plight of the poor or work for conditions conducive to peace and stability. Writing off poor country debts, controlling the small arms trade and making it easier for the poor to get cheaper drugs are all measures that it could take. But of course it hasn’t.
Unfortunately, US foreign policy is in thrall to potent domestic interests, among which happen to be the gun lobby, the pharmaceutical industry and international lenders. And it needs only a cursory look at the current US administration to kill any hopes of statesman-like vision coming from that source.
Examples are not hard to find. The Trade- Related Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPs) sets internationally-binding rules on patents, copyrights and trademarks. US diplomats, mindful of the lobbying of their domestic pharmaceutical industry, strongly influenced TRIPs negotiations. Accordingly, TRIPs now stipulates that US-style intellectual property laws must be followed throughout the world, granting monopoly sales rights to individual patent holders virtually in perpetuity. Countries like Brazil, India and Thailand, with budding pharmaceutical industries are, under TRIPs rules, forced to stop developing medicines that some multinational has patented, and which they could supply to the poor at affordable prices. Given the pressing humanitarian concerns, it should not be beyond the wit of policy makers to devise regulation that crumbles these invidious monopolies, yet retains enough financial incentives for multinationals to keep investing in drug research. But, as usual, the rich world leaders took the easy way. Under intense US pressure, the final communiqué of the G-8 summit in Genoa reaffirmed the influence of the powerful pharmaceutical industry, dashing the hopes of the poor. “We reaffirm our commitment to strong and effective intellectual property rights protection as a necessary incentive to research and development of life- saving drugs,” it said.
Washington followed the same narrow self- interested track at last week’s UN conference, in New York. The UN estimates that hand-held weapons kill over a thousand a day. This wanton slaughter could be easily restrained by banning sales of assault rifles, pistols, machine guns and other light weapons. This plain connection was made by the conference’s African delegates, at least, who proposed restrictions on weapons sales, even if their hidden motive may have been to curtail supplies to rebel groups opposing their rule. But Washington, somehow, failed to see the link. It is not hard to guess the source of this sudden disingenuousness. The US is by far the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of deadly small arms, producing over half the world’s supply. And the US gun lobby is mighty powerful. Needless to say, Washington ensured that the proposal to limit or ban civilian gun ownership was unceremoniously expunged from the UN’s final communiqué.
It was no mere coincidence that other, no less important, but very different meetings took place simultaneously with the G-8 meeting in Genoa. These, in some ways, were the reverse of the Genoese talking shop. In Zanzibar, leaders and officials from the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the so-called Fourth World, met to discuss how to deal with the malign effects of globalisation, Washington style. It is illuminating that the LDCs feel they have to meet at all: plainly they feel larger international forums are careless of their problems. These countries, the poorest of the poor, may not have much cash to spare, but they do represent a significant voting bloc at the United Nations and other international forums such as the World Trade Organisation. Potentially, if they could coordinate their actions, they could derail the most insidious effects of globalisation through sheer numbers. At Zanzibar, the LDCs were particularly incensed by agricultural subsidies in rich countries that make the free market in farmed goods neither free, nor fair. Predictably, the US and EU farming lobby is again behind this set of world rules.
It has been said that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician makes the possible necessary, while a statesman makes the necessary possible. The necessity of easing the hardship of the world’s poor escapes the understanding of the Washington administration, which has done nothing to make it possible. Meanwhile, the utter incompatibility between the interests of rich and poor, once only a possibility, is looking more and more like a burdensome necessity. If the world is not to be divided into two ruinous camps, with the richer using every chicanery at its disposal to keep hold of its wealth whatever the suffering of the poorer, more statesmanship and less politicking is needed: now. Alas, the current crop of rich world leaders seem to have far lowlier ambitions. You only needed to witness their efforts at Genoa to see that.