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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 12:36 GMT
Does free trade benefit the poor?
WTO summit has provoked strong passions

By BBC reporter Michael Gallagher

The meeting in Seattle is the most important trade summit since the World Trade Organisation was created five years ago. For the first time, the prospect of a genuinely free-trading world is in sight.

The battle for free trade
For the organisation's Director-General Mike Moore, these are promising times for all the world's economies - great and small, thanks to WTO rules:

"There's 1.5 billion people that are trying to join this organisation. I think that says something," he says.

"The principle is that a huge country like the United States, the most powerful, can go into a dispute with a small country like Costa Rica, and Costa Rica can win. Isn't this a civilised way of doing it?"

Not according to many of the WTO's critics. From environmentalists to human rights activists, there is no shortage of people who claim it is trampling on less powerful countries in the name of commerce.

Different rules for rich and poor

Thousands have converged on Seattle
They say indigenous producers cannot compete with big multinational companies, while in certain areas, like agriculture, the wealthy northern hemisphere still shuts out imports from the south by subsidising its own produce. In short, critics say, it is one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

"In the previous round of talks, developing countries opened up their markets considerably, bringing down tariffs and largely taking away [import] controls," says Tagendra Kana, India's former commerce secretary.

"They now have a very fair claim that there should be a stronger opening up of the services market, where they have some skills and advantages."

"There should be liberalisation of agricultural trade, where, because of continued subsidies, prices are kept artificially low internationally."

Trade talk targets
Expand tariff cuts to agriculture and services
Set agenda for other areas of trade liberalisation
Discuss labour rights
Set standards for 'fair' trading
The growth of hi-technology industries means there is now the prospect of an ever-widening gulf between the developing and developed worlds.

One of the most controversial areas at present is gene technology. Europe and the United States want patents to apply to modified genes in plants and animals. That will protect the interests of biotechnology companies.

"It's definitely a big, big problem," says Brazilian aid campaigner Anna Tonie. "By allowing patenting for some international firms to patent knowledge and bio-safety and other things from developing countries you are obviously instigating bio-piracy.

"It's easier for a firm, for example, to come to Brazil, to do their research and take their research back, say to the US, to Germany, or any other countries, without having to give in any kind of feedback or compensation for the indigenous people or local people that have developed that technology or has been looking after a plant for many, many years."

There is some evidence the WTO has been stung by this kind of criticism. It is trying to present the summit as one where Third World concerns will be heard. The message is that free trade can work for everyone.

US seen as enemy of fair trade
Mr Moore wants the west to cut its own tariffs to zero on almost all imports from the world's least developed nations, a step the European Union is already planning to take.

"We're saying that essentially all goods coming from the 49 least-developed countries will be able to have access to the European Union with no duties being imposed upon them," says UK Trade Secretary Stephen Byers.

"That will make a massive difference as far as those countries are concerned. It will give them access to a market of 370 million people. It's a radical change that'll begin to lift them out of poverty."

Here to stay

It is likely much more will be needed to rebut the claim that free trade is not fair trade, and to satisfy the thousands of demonstrators who have converged on Seattle.

Among their complaints are that the WTO itself is inherently undemocratic, its treaties thrashed out behind closed doors by unaccountable lawyers, with few opportunities for countries to appeal. International free trade, it seems, is far from ideal.

But they may not have a choice. Whether they like it or not, it is here to stay.

"Globalisation, the very rapid movement of capital across the world, new technology, it's a transformation of the whole world system," says UK Overseas Development Minister Claire Short.

"The nation state can't operate in the way it used to. There are a lot of people who say they can't cope. And they're shouting and protesting.

"But I think it's a waking-up to how big the historical change is that is taking place in this era."

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See also:
01 Dec 99 |  Americas
Trade protesters spark emergency
01 Dec 99 |  UK
London's WTO riot hangover
01 Dec 99 |  Business
WTO boss: Protesters harm the poor
30 Nov 99 |  Americas
In pictures: The WTO protests
30 Nov 99 |  Business
Trade talks backlash warning
23 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Free trade flashpoints
28 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Global hopes, global fears
24 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Trade blocs and bullies
23 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Free trade benefits all

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