On November 30, 1999, the "Millennium Round" of
negotiations for the World Trade Organization collapsed
under the weight of the massive public exposure that it
received for the first time in the streets of Seattle. It was an
event that changed history.
By last May, the New York Times had noted that the
opposition had "made globalization a naughty word," and
leading advocates such as International Monetary Fund (IMF)
Deputy Director Stanley Fischer were looking for "another
way of describing economic integration, if the idea is ever to
become popular again."
Congress had ratified America's membership in the
WTO five years before Seattle, but only because nobody was
paying attention. The organization wasted little time in
proving to be its opponents' worst nightmare. Should the US
Environmental Protection Agency have the right to set
standards for the quality of imported gasoline? Can we decide
that shrimp that is sold in US markets must be caught in a way
that minimizes the killing of sea turtles, in accordance with
our Endangered Species Act? Should Europeans have the right
to reject beef that is treated with growth hormones?
In each of these cases the WTO's answer was no, and
so it was increasingly seen-- especially by environmental and
citizens' groups-- as a threat to national sovereignty and the
ability of governments to regulate commerce in the public
interest. Labor, too, saw the immediate threat of an
organization that was willing to write hundreds of pages of
rules to protect corporations, but solemnly declared that the
rights of workers were outside of its jurisdiction.
The WTO has yet set a date for the resumption of the
Millennium Round. Given what was on the agenda, the
"Seattle coalition" of environmental, labor, citizens' groups
has certainly done the world a service.
One of the WTO's main agenda items is to proceed
with implementation of its agreement on intellectual property
rights. This is much uglier business than it sounds, when one
considers the fate of 25 million Africans now afflicted with
AIDS or HIV. Many, if not most, of these people could be
saved if they had access to anti-AIDS drugs that are now
available in the United States. At patent-protected prices, this
would cost tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars, and is
really outside the realm of possibility.
At the cost of production, the amount required would
be a very small fraction of the patent-protected price, and
could be affordable with increased foreign aid. More than 4
million people have already died, and it is very possible that
millions more will die needlessly, because the principle of
enforcing intellectual property rights internationally is
considered to be more important than saving their lives.
In the last year, the Seattle coalition opened up new
fronts against even more powerful global institutions: the IMF
and World Bank. Like the WTO, these organizations have
served to remove decision-making authority from elected
governments to non-elected, unaccountable officials. The IMF
and the World Bank control access to credit-- not only from
themselves but from other sources-- for many countries. As a
result, they are able to decide on the most important economic
policies for dozens of countries, often with disastrous results.
The Seattle coalition has demanded an end to some of
the most destructive practices of the IMF and the World Bank,
as well as the WTO. More than four years ago, under
increasing public pressure, the IMF and the World Bank
promised debt relief for 41 "Highly Indebted Poor Countries
(HIPC), but they have been dragging their feet ever since. So
far only one country-- Uganda-- has actually had its debt
service payments reduced through this initiative. Meanwhile,
the amount of debt service paid by HIPC countries is 25 or 30
times more than the total amount spent on international
programs to combat AIDS.
Despite the lack of reform at the top, there has been
progress over the last year-- most importantly the WTO's
indefinite postponement of new negotiations. The debate has
changed, with policy makers and the press now accepting
some of the criticisms of globalization that were put forth at
Seattle. And just last month advocates for the poor won a
significant victory against the World Bank: the Bank agreed,
in response to a law passed by Congress, to end its practice of
requiring borrowing governments to impose fees on poor
people for primary education and health care.
Seattle showed that even the most powerful,
unaccountable global institutions were vulnerable to a
grassroots campaign that could subject them to public
scrutiny. They still haven't recovered from the shock.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic
and Policy Research, in Washington, DC. His latest paper,
"One Year After Seattle: Globalization Revisited" is available