September 28, 2003

WTO foes no friends to poor

By: Akinyi June Arunga

NAIROBI, KENYA–The two women seated next to me in the cab claimed to be my advocates. But as we traveled toward the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Cancun, I found myself frustrated by their statements and doubtful that the policies they promoted could do anything to solve my people’s poverty.

They were scholars from a Canadian university, in Cancun with a women’s rights group to protest the WTO. In the past, I’d felt gratitude toward such people, who invested time, money and energy–even risking jail, by turning violent–to fight for the poor of the world, a class to which most of my family and friends belong.

The more I learned about economics and world trade, though, the less I believed these women’s rhetoric. Nonetheless, I thought that the cab ride would help me understand why these educated people would so oppose free trade and the economic reforms promoted by the WTO.

I asked them why they saw free trade as a threat to the poor’s chances at wealth creation. They pointed at the huge hotels of Cancun and one of them said, “Look. Look at all this. I was in Cancun in the ’80s and this place was very indigenous. Now it looks just like the United States; no different. I can hardly recognize it at all! Look: there’s a McDonald’s, and a Burger King. Oh, my goodness, even Gucci! Cancun has disappeared under the [North American] Free Trade Agreement that they signed with the U.S.!”

They were disgusted, but I looked around and saw only opportunity. I wished that we had such hotels in Kenya, where we have wonderful beaches and many pleasant people who would benefit enormously if the tourism industry flourished as it does in Cancun. I said, “I’m sure that the people of Cancun are happier, since they have jobs and hence money to buy food, clothing and shelter. They meet people from around the world, and can easily sell their goods and services to these visitors.”

The women snapped back that Cancun workers were paid barely livable wages. Puzzled, I asked, “So you would like to visit Cancun and see more indigenous people in their indigenous clothes, living in their indigenous huts, farming in their indigenous methods, and eating only their indigenous food?”

To my horror, they said, “It would be better for the environment and for cultural diversity!”

Like many other globalization protesters I’ve encountered, they seemed to believe that Mexicans and other poor people don’t want the same conveniences of life that they themselves enjoy: running water, permanent homes, affordable clothes and food, leisure time, cars. They preferred things to stay “exotic”–underdeveloped and poor.

The “indigenous” customs enjoyed by such tourists are not so charming when they make up one’s day-to-day existence. The protesters curse the use of DDT, the only effective control of malaria, because it harms birds. But they never have to wonder if their children will survive the current malaria epidemic. They argue against the use of pesticides and pest- and drought-resistant crops, but they never have to wonder how they will survive if a pest invasion or drought destroys all their grown food.

They argue against new technologies, such as the genetic modification of crops, that might increase productivity and help us move from subsistence farming to cash crops, but they never have to worry that there might not be food on the table.

Such anti-free-traders–including world leaders who refuse to remove trade barriers and who promote environmental policies that sustain famine in poor countries–should take their children and move to these poor countries.

There, living under the laws that they advocate, they would be without credit cards or jobs, sleeping in mud huts, cooking with firewood, and inhaling indoor smoke–while dealing with corrupt dictators and excessive regulation from their own government.

Coupled with the escalating tariffs and subsidies applied by the First World, these anti-free-traders would find themselves unable to escape the poverty that we in the poor countries know only too well.

I don’t wish this on my worst enemy, and I wish that our “friends” would stop imposing it on us.

Akinyi June Arunga is director of youth education at the Inter-Region Economic Network, in Kenya.