by Walden Bello
Focus on Trade, No. 78, May 2002

In response to my critique of its market-access campaign, Oxfam International recently issued a lengthy rejoinder authored by Angus Cleary, Oxfam Great Britain’s campaigns director. I would like to thank Angus for taking the time to reply to my concerns.

Let me say at the outset that notwithstanding my differences with Oxfam, I feel that it has done the movement against corporate-driven globalization a great service by pushing the question of our strategy on the trade front to center stage. This is an issue I will return to after first dealing with a few items in the Oxfam response to my statement.

Obfuscation Rather than Clarification

Unfortunately, Oxfam’s rejoinder promotes obfuscation rather than clarification of the issues. For instance, Oxfam now denies that it is launching a global campaign for greater market access for developing country products in northern markets, saying that market access is just “one theme among many” of its trade campaign. Yet, Severina Rivera, senior policy advisor on trade to Oxfam America, recently resigned precisely because market access was the main thrust of the Oxfam campaign. To quote Ms. Rivera, “I cannot support Oxfam’s trade campaign priority that calls, over the life of its 3-year campaign, for more market access and trade for poor countries as the solution to poverty. Nor can I support the year-one campaign objective: market access for textiles from least developed countries as the solution to, or even a solution to poverty in these countries”.

Another disconcerting example of this obfuscation has to do with the use of the word “globaphobes” to brand the anti-corporate globalization movement. The rejoinder says that the Oxfam Report was referring to some minuscule, marginal groups in the North. But what does the Oxfam Report really say? The summary reads: “Current debate about trade are dominated by ritualistic exchanges between two camps: the ‘globaphiles’ and the ‘globaphobes.'” This passage shows clearly that Oxfam uses the word globaphobes to describe the whole camp of free trade critics, not just a few marginal groups. In the very next paragraph, Oxfam makes clear that what it means by globaphobes is the “anti-globalization movement”. Oxfam cannot be unaware of the fact that “globaphobes” is a highly politically charged word with pejorative connotations that was coined by the Economist, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, free-trade ideologue Jagdish Bhagwati, and other free-marketeers to denigrate and caricature the whole range of critics of the WTO and free trade, from labor unions to peasant groups, from environmentalists to proponents of managed trade.

Some have said that Oxfam’s painting the trade debate as being divided into two big camps, whose arguments it then proceeds to caricature, is an opportunistic ploy that is designed to project Oxfam as taking the rational, sensible middle road between two irrational blocs. Whether that was, in fact, the intention, that is in fact the effect. And the storm of protest this has evoked from so many activists that are otherwise respectful of Oxfam’s work should tell Oxfam that you can’t have it both ways: You can’t say you’re part of us then score with the Establishment by caricaturing us in the crudest Economist fashion.

The rest of the Oxfam response pretty much proceeds in the same vein, so that in the end we are left not with clarification, but with the question: Where does Oxfam really, really stand on the key substantive issues at stake such as free trade, trade liberalization, export agriculture, and the World Trade Organization?

The Larger Issue: What Strategy on the Trade Front?

We are, however, not engaged in an academic debate on the pros and cons of export agriculture or market access. Indeed, as I said above, if there is one thing that we can thank Oxfam for, it is that by pushing its market access campaign, it has forced the movement against corporate-driven globalization to confront the question of what should be its strategy on the international trade front. It is likely that at the heart of our debate with Oxfam are not only differences on substantive issues like the costs and benefits of market access or the domestic impact of export agriculture but also divergent postures on strategic issues like what priorities the movement should have at this point and how it should go about achieving them.

Strategy must respond to the needs of the moment in the struggle against corporate-driven globalization. This can only be derived by identifying the strategic objective, accurately assessing the global context or conjuncture, and elaborating an effective strategy and tactical repertoire that responds to the particularities of the conjuncture.

For the movement against corporate-driven globalization, it seems fairly clear that the strategic goal must be halting or reversing WTO- mandated liberalization in trade and trade-related areas. The context or “conjuncture” is characterized by a fragile victory on the part of the free-trade globalizers at the 4th Ministerial at Doha, where they bludgeoned developing countries into agreeing to a limited round of trade talks for more liberalization on agriculture, services and industrial tariffs. The conjuncture is marked by the globalizers’ effort to build momentum so as to have the coming 5th Ministerial in Mexico launch negotiations for liberalization in the so-called trade related areas of investment, competition policy, government procurement, and trade facilitation. Their aim is to have the 5th Ministerial expand the limited set of negotiations they extracted at Doha into a comprehensive round of negotiations that would rival the Uruguay Round.

This expansion of the free trade mandate and the expansion of the power and jurisdiction of the WTO, which is now the most powerful multilateral instrument of the global corporations, is a mortal threat to development, social justice and equity, and the environment. And it is the goal that we must thwart at all costs, for we might as well kiss goodbye to sustainable development, social justice, equity, and the environment if the big trading powers and their corporate elites have their way and launch another global round for liberalization during the WTO’s 5th Ministerial Assembly in Mexico in 2003.

Campaign Objective: Derail the Drive for Free Trade at the 5th Ministerial

Given the strategic goal of stopping and reversing trade liberalization, the campaign objective on which the movement against corporate-driven globalization must focus its efforts and energies is simple and stark: derailing the drive for free trade at the 5th Ministerial, which will serve as the key global mechanism for advancing free trade.

The free trade partisan C. Fred Bergsten, head of the Institute of International Economics (IIE), has compared free trade and the WTO to a bicycle: they collapse if they do not move forward. Which is why Seattle was such a mortal threat to the WTO and why the globalizers were so determined to extract a mandate for liberalization at Doha. Had they failed at Doha, the likely prospect was not simply a stalemate but a retreat from free trade. For the movement against corporate-driven globalization, derailing the 5th Ministerial or preventing agreement on the launching of a new comprehensive round would mean not only fighting the WTO and free trade to a standstill. It would mean creating momentum for a rollback of free trade and a reduction of the power of the WTO. This is well understood by, among others, the Economist, which warned its corporate readers “globalization is reversible”.

If derailing the drive for free trade at the 5th Ministerial is indeed the goal, then the main tactical focus of the strategy becomes clear: Consensus decision-making is the Achilles heel of the WTO, and it is the emergence of consensus that we must prevent at all costs from emerging.

In the 16 short months before the 5th Ministerial, the anti-corporate globalization movement must focus its energy on ensuring that countries do not come into agreement in any of the areas now being negotiated or about to be negotiated, that is, agriculture, services, and industrial tariffs; and at the ministerial itself, preventing any consensus from emerging on negotiating the new issues of government procurement, competition policy, investment, and trade facilitation. The aim must be, as in Seattle, to have the delegates go to the ministerial with a “heavily bracketed” declaration-that is, one where there is no consensus on the key issues-and at the ministerial itself, to prevent consensus via last minute horse-trading. As in Seattle, the end goal must be to have the ministerial end in disagreement and lack of consensus.

Components of the Strategy

If the goal is unhinging the game plan for greater free trade at the 5th Ministerial, then the anti-corporate globalization movement has its work cut out for it. We must unfold a multi-pronged strategy whose components must include:

  • unraveling the alliance between US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy by exacerbating the US-EU conflict on Europe’s agricultural subsidies, the Bush administration’s failure to obtain unrestricted fast-track authority to negotiate from the US Senate, Washington’s imposition of protective tariffs on steel and its resurgent trade unilateralism, and the US’ export of hormone-treated beef and genetically modified organisms (GMOs);
  • instead of promoting the illusion of gaining market access for their products, consolidating the resistance of developing country governments to greater liberalization by underlining the reality that the US and the EU will never abandon the massive subsidization of their rich farming interests, the effective protection of their textile and garment sectors, and their monopolistic control of technology via the TRIPs agreement;
  • intensifying our efforts to assist developing country delegations in Geneva to master the WTO process and formulate effective strategies to block the emergence of consensus on the areas prioritized by the trading powers and reassert the priority of implementation issues;
  • working with national movements, such as peasant movements for food sovereignty in the South and citizens’ movements in the North, to build massive pressure on their governments not to agree to further liberalization in agriculture, services, and other areas being negotiated;
  • skillfully coordinating global protests, mass street action at the site of the ministerial, and lobby work in Geneva to create a global critical mass with momentum in the lead-up to the ministerial.

The task is immense and we have so little time. But we have no choice. The trading powers and the WTO learned from Seattle, and they brought the bicycle of the WTO back on its wheels in Doha. Likewise, we must learn from Doha so that we can wrestle the bicycle back to the ground in Mexico. And among the key lessons we need to absorb is that our coalition must have a coordinated strategy that brings our work on many different fronts, levels, and dimensions to bear on one goal: unhinging the drive for free trade at the 5th Ministerial.

Strategic Flaws of Oxfam’s Market Access Campaign

Given these considerations, the Oxfam market access campaign reminds us of General Omar Bradley’s classic description of the Korean conflict, which was that “it was the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time”. In terms of strategy, the Oxfam market-access campaign suffers on a number of counts:

One, it is unfolding in a strategic vacuum-that is, it lacks any connection or relevance to a broader strategy aimed at stopping and reversing trade liberalization by unhinging the free-trade drive at the 5th Ministerial. The Oxfam market-access campaign has all the hallmarks of a campaign that is driven not by a strategy derived from the global conjuncture on the trade front but by an internal organizational imperative to have a “winnable” short-term campaign.

Two, it simply distracts the movement from its real priority at this point, which should be derailing the free trade drive at the 5th Ministerial. Oxfam should realize that there is a great difference between doing an expose and mounting a campaign, that is between exposing the double standards and hypocrisy of the big trading powers when it comes to market access and actually launching a campaign for greater market access. Campaigns must focus on promoting the strategic priorities of a global movement that is finite in its resources and energies instead of waylaying the movement into side streets where the results can even be counterproductive.

Three, the market access campaign is, in fact, counterproductive. Oxfam knows that elimination of textile and garment quotas in developed country markets is already mandated under the Uruguay Round, and that the big trading powers are simply dragging out their elimination of textile and garment quotas until the last years of the 10-year phase-out period (to be replaced, as many suspect, with more aggressive anti-dumping action against developing country imports). WTO director general Mike Moore knows that this foot-dragging is a sore point with developing countries-one which is undermining the credibility of the WTO in their eyes-and this is the reason he can readily support Oxfam’s campaign, which has a one-year focus on ending the quotas.

Indeed, part of the strategy that Moore and the WTO secretariat are unfolding to defuse developing country opposition to a comprehensive trade round seems to be to support market access campaigns launched by Oxfam and organizations such as the Cairns Group in order to pressure the big trading powers to accelerate the dismantling of quotas-and their replacement with other forms of protection like anti-dumping-so that they can increase their leverage on the developing countries to agree to more liberalization in areas deemed more critical to the WTO and the big trading powers, such as industrial tariffs, services, and the trade-related areas of investment, competition policy, government procurement, and trade facilitation. In other words, the WTO secretariat hopes to convince the big trading powers that by accelerating market access in areas they already agreed to years back, they will be able to extract concessions in the current and coming negotiations in those areas of greater strategic interest to their corporations, like investment and government procurement.

This kind of strategic maneuvering on the part of the WTO is, in fact, something that Oxfam leaders like senior analyst Kevin Watkins are very much aware of. In a recent article on the EU’s negotiating stance on services in the Guardian (“Money Talks”, April 24, 2002), Kevin asserted that “When it comes to the negotiating table, the EU will demand market openings in services as a condition for opening its own markets in garments and textiles…we buy your bananas and shirts if you give our banks and insurance companies unrestricted access to your markets”. Kevin’s words make it even more puzzling why Oxfam would launch a campaign that could be easily co-opted into the WTO secretariat’s game plan to achieve the comprehensive trade round that is its strategic goal.

In conclusion, it was necessary and useful for Oxfam and its friends to have had this exchange. In Focus’ view, however, it is time for the movement to move forward and forge a comprehensive strategy to foil the effort of the WTO Secretariat and the big trading powers to launch a new comprehensive round of trade negotiations at the 5th Ministerial of the WTO. Oxfam’s participation in this coalition effort is something that is greatly desired. However, Oxfam can only be an effective partner if it first clarifies to itself and the movement where it really, really stands on the issues of globalization, trade liberalization, and the World Trade Organization.

We hope that many more organizations can participate in this effort to define a much- needed strategy on the trade front. What we have laid out above is meant to spark and to contribute to this process, not serve as an end. It is important that discussion of the issues and directions is not limited to policy analysts but involves input from the grassroots, especially from social movements. The “Our World is Not for Sale” global coalition is one of the most promising venues for the process of building consensus among our ranks.

The era of top-down, go-it-alone campaigns is over.

Copyright 2002 Focus on the Global Site