Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Free trade? Or free trade only for the powerful? - Part 1

While reading about neoliberalism in Mohan Dutta's Communicating Social Change, the following paragraph struck a chord with me:

"The advent of the neoliberal logic on the global stage has been marked by the power and control of global organisations such as the international financial institutions: World Bank, and International Monetary Fund as well as the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, which later evolved into the World Trade Organisation, created with the goals of minimising the barriers to global trade, and maximizing trading opportunities for transnational corporations across national borders."

In my time as a journalist, I have seen how these seemingly lofty ideals have translated on the ground. While I believe it to be generally true that trading opportunities are greatly enhanced for powerful western businesses under the auspices of global structures such as the WTO, do these same structures engender a level playing field for all? Do they really minimise barriers to trade, and do they do that expressly to enhance wellness and betterment to peoples' lives?

During a WTO summit in 2005 in Hong Kong, I witnessed not only finance ministers and dignitaries, but hordes of activists and protesters converging in the city. I heard stories from bitter Korean farmers of how they borrowed heavily to improve their rice farming practices and yields only to face the spectre of a glut when foreign rice flooded their domestic market. Due to WTO rules, the country would be accused of protectionism if it clung on to barriers against foreign imports. So the country opened its doors to rice imports and many South Korean farmers quickly became bankrupt. A simple search will uncover stories of farmer suicides. As I listened to their stories, I was appalled to find out how wonderful tales of globalization -- the dominant narrative in public, popular discourse -- could go so wrong.

Here was a case of how structural shackles exerted by international organization were encouraging dumping behavior. These perpetrators were protected whilst the little people, disempowered and bereft of agency, were left to perish.

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