Guardian Unlimited
Go to:  
Guardian UnlimitedColumnists
Home UK Business Net Picture gallery The wrap Weblog Talk Search
The Guardian World World dispatch Arts Special reports Columnists Audio Help Quiz

George MonbiotGeorge Monbiot


Text-only version
Send it to a friend
Read it later
See saved stories

  Search this site
 Recent articles

23 Nov 2001
George Monbiot: Taxpayer is subsidising cheap air travel

20 Nov 2001
George Monbiot: Tinkering with poverty

15 Nov 2001
Comment: War in Afghanistan

6 Nov 2001
George Monbiot: Trade piracy unmasked

30 Oct 2001
George Monbiot: Backyard terrorism in the US

23 Oct 2001
George Monbiot: America's pipe dream

16 Oct 2001
Comment: Gagging the sceptics

9 Oct 2001
George Monbiot: Folly of aid and bombs

2 Oct 2001
George Monbiot: Genocide or peace

25 Sep 2001
Comment: Collateral repair

18 Sep 2001
George Monbiot: The need for dissent

4 Sep 2001
Comment: environmental groups sleeping with the enemy

28 Aug 2001
George Monbiot: A high toll for Skye

21 Aug 2001
George Monbiot: Biotech firms are turning to coercion

14 Aug 2001
George Monbiot: Hell's Grannies

24 Jul 2001
Raising the temperature

17 Jul 2001
George Monbiot: How to rule the world

20 Jun 2001
George Monbiot: Stealing Europe

12 Jun 2001
George Monbiot: Break the whip

8 Jun 2001
Labour's victory rings hollow

5 Jun 2001
Bleeding the hospitals

29 May 2001
George Monbiot: transport and local economies

22 May 2001
Comment: Bush's dirty war

15 May 2001
Comment: in love with business

8 May 2001
Comment: Wembley fiasco is indictment of greedy elite

1 May 2001
Comment: Violence is our enemy

24 Apr 2001
George Monbiot on market freedom

5 Apr 2001
Comment: GM trial sees manipulation of facts

29 Mar 2001
Comment: Foot and mouth is a good thing

22 Mar 2001
Comment: George Monbiot on the WTO

21 Mar 2001
George Monbiot: Damaged by the evils of the market

15 Mar 2001
Comment: Laying the foundations for trouble

8 Mar 2001
Comment: A bypass in our democracy

1 Mar 2001
George Monbiot on the farming crisis

22 Feb 2001
Comment: Wearing a T-shirt makes you a terrorist

15 Feb 2001
Comment: Nato mocked those who claimed there was a plan for Caspian oil.

8 Feb 2001
Comment: Dissent is in the air: take to the streets

1 Feb 2001
George Monbiot: I'm a menace to society

25 Jan 2001
Comment: Our strange fear of older mothers

18 Jan 2001
Comment: Huntingdon's shareholders fear they'll lose their money

15 Jan 2001
The El Salvador earthquake: 'We care, but only when we know'

11 Jan 2001
Comment: MoD hides from truth about depleted uranium

4 Jan 2001
George Monbiot on rising cancer levels

28 Dec 2000
Dying of consumption

21 Dec 2000
Comment: Winter fuels the health service woes

14 Dec 2000
George Monbiot on the triumph of corporate power in a new white paper

30 Nov 2000
George Monbiot: Indonesia and West Papua

23 Nov 2000
Comment: Mad cows, Bretons and manganese

16 Nov 2000
Comment: The great climate sell-off

2 Nov 2000
There can be no escape from nature

Tinkering with poverty

The WTO will not deliver for poor countries. We need to revive Keynes's original plan

George Monbiot
Tuesday November 20, 2001
The Guardian

They thought it was all over. After civilisation's victory in Afghanistan, where the lion now lies down with the lamb, there was, almost all the newspapers agreed, nothing left to discuss. All that needed to be done was to remind those who had questioned the war just how profoundly wrong they were, and they would slip back under the stones from which they had crept.

And yet, from all over the country, in coaches, convoys and hired trains, they came. Theirs was not the trickle of cowed dissenters which some had foreseen, but what may have been the biggest anti-war march since Vietnam. Those who attended both demonstrations insisted that this one was roughly twice the size of the protest held a month ago. Far from assuaging public concern about the future of Afghanistan, the capture of Kabul appears only to have roused it.

But the size of the demonstration was not its only unexpected feature. It soon became obvious that the crowd was thinking about more than just Afghanistan. To thunderous cheers, speaker after speaker linked the war to the other means by which the rich world persuades the poor world to do as it bids: namely its power over bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. It is not only the peace movement which hasn't gone away, it seems, but also the anti-corporate movement, whose death has been so widely proclaimed since September 11. Just as the peace campaigners have drawn strength from the internationalists, the internationalists are building on the peace campaign. The battle against corporate power has resumed.

This may seem an unfortunate time to attack the World Trade Organisation. At the trade talks in Qatar last week, the poor nations evinced an unprecedented skill in forcing the rich to listen to their demands. Despite the best efforts of Britain and Germany, the WTO agreed that during public-health emergencies, governments can override corporate patents to provide their people with cheap drugs. The European Union may be forced to start retracting subsidies which destroy the livelihoods of farmers overseas.

The new trade declaration, moreover, radiates goodwill. The WTO, it insists, wants to address "the marginalisation of least-developed countries"; reaffirm its "commitment to... sustainable development"; and "contribute to a durable solution" to third world debt. These are fine words, but in the world trade talks, as in Afghanistan, peace has been declared before the real battles have begun.

The rich nations have so loaded the agenda with new issues that, in the three years available for negotiation, the WTO may never get round to discussing the topics the poor world has raised. Some of these new issues, such as investment and competition policy, had already been flatly rejected by the less developed nations. The new resolutions on debt cancellation, economic justice and sustainability, moreover, overlook one small but significant obstacle. None of these reforms is in the WTO's gift.

Fifty-six years ago, the architects of the modern world's economy recognised that issues like these would have to be addressed if commercial freedom was to be accompanied by commercial fairness. They proposed an "international trade organisation", which, as well as working to reduce tariffs, would also transfer technology to poor countries, protect the rights of workers and prevent big companies from controlling the world economy. US corporations went berserk and the proposal was postponed. A temporary organisation, the general agreement on tariffs and trade (Gatt), was cobbled together to bring down tariff barriers while the negotiators tried to build a proper trade body. It never materialised. Gatt turned into the WTO, and the poor were left to rot.

One of the striking aspects of the debate about globalisation is how little the defenders of the status quo know about the history of the institutions they champion. It's not just the International Trade Organisation which has been comprehensively forgotten, but also another body proposed at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. In his recent pamphlet attacking the internationalist movement, the journalist John Lloyd describes John Maynard Keynes as "the most important theorist behind the creation" of the IMF and the World Bank. Keynes, he suggests, saw them as "conducive to peace and the relief of poverty".

In truth, Keynes bitterly opposed them. He predicted that if the world economy was managed by these means, the wealth and power of the creditor nations would be massively enhanced, while the debtors would sink ever further into poverty and dependency. He called instead for an "international clearing union" which would automatically redeem imbalances in trade and cancel debt, by the ingenious means of forcing creditors to pay interest on their international currency surplus at the same rate as debtors.

Once again, the United States objected. It threatened to withhold its war loan if the British delegation, led by Keynes, persisted with his proposal, and he was forced to back down and agree to the formation of the bodies which later became the World Bank and IMF. In a letter to the Times soon afterwards, Keynes conceded that the commercial policies the new bodies would permit may prove to be "very foolish" and "so destructive of international trade that, if they were adopted, Bretton Woods will have been rather a waste of time".

The problem, in other words, is not the decisions that bodies such as the WTO, World Bank and IMF make. The problem is that they are constitutionally destined to fail. The WTO can set only maximum standards for global trade, rather than the minimum standards which might restrain big corporations. The bank and the IMF, entirely controlled by the credi tor nations, exist to police the poor world's debt on their behalf.

Yet, instead of recognising these inherent defects, their backers choose to reproach the blind for having their eyes put out. Last week, for example, the internet magazine openDemocracy published interviews with Peter Sutherland, the former head of the WTO, and Maria Cattaui, who runs the International Chamber of Commerce. Sutherland asserted that it's "indisputable that the real problem with the economies that have failed" is "their own domestic governments". Cattaui insisted that the "fault lies most of all at home with the countries concerned". But, as several prominent economists warned in 1944, even if the indebted nations of the poor world were governed by angels, the trade and financial institutions launched at Bretton Woods would ruin their economies.

There can be no clearer sign of failure than the call Gordon Brown made last week for a doubling of the rich world's aid to the poor. We could dispute the wisdom of pouring aid into a country at one end and extracting debt repayments at the other, but under present circumstances the new money is clearly necessary. If the men who had planned the Bretton Woods conference knew that in 2001 we would be arguing about how much aid we should give to poor nations, they would have packed up and gone home. The stated purpose of their meeting was to render generosity redundant.

There is no point in tinkering with this system. It will destroy the lives of the poor until it is itself destroyed, and replaced with benign institutions of the kind that Keynes envisaged. On Sunday we may have begun to find the strength to do it.

Special reports
May Day 2001
GM food debate
Debt relief

Is ethical globalisation possible?

07.09.2001: The IMF
04.09.2001: The World Bank

Audio report
26.07.2001: Genoa police 'tried to kill me'

Useful links
Critical Mass


Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001