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By Alan Oxley : BIO| 09 Aug 2020
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Have you noticed that the leaders of the global NGO movement, such as WWF and Oxfam, no longer demonize the World Bank as a tool of the free market? They reckon they have brought it to heel. Given how James Wolfenson indulged them while he ran the Bank, they are entitled to think so. Their current goal is to compromise the WTO in similar fashion. While Greenpeace has been direct about this, Oxfam and WWF have played a slyer game. However their response to the suspension of the negotiations in the Doha shows their true anti-development hand.

Last week Greenpeace, Oxfam, WWF and International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) signed a joint letter to the International Herald Tribune calling for a "complete change in the mind set (towards multilateralism) so that multilateral strategic responses to interconnected challenges can occur", now that the Doha Round is stalled.

Why are they using this UN-style mumbo jumbo? It's what UN bureaucrats use when they want to mask their real intent. So what are the NGOs hiding? It is radical ambition -- they want to make the WTO a regulator not deregulator of global trade, as well as the global police to enforce labor standards and green policies. They want the WTO to mandate trade sanctions to force governments to adopt green policies on forestry and climate change.

The original architect of this strategy is WWF. It manufactured the global "Trade and Environment" campaign which set Greens against the WTO and has run it for over a decade. The charge was free trade rules blocked measures to protect the environment. They do no such thing, but WWF was the source of a stream of key research papers and think pieces all arguing the same point. The anti-globalization movement, led by old socialists in Europe whose interventionist economic policies had been discarded by most Governments, lapped them up. They made the WTO the anti-globalization icon.

Why WWF took this leading role is a mystery. Trade is not its core business and no government accepts that WTO rules impede conservation. Yet WWF consistently devoted more resources to undermining the WTO over a longer period than any other NGO until recently when Oxfam has matched it. One former Director General of the WTO was fond of pointing out WWF had more staff working on this issue, which was seen inside the WTO as tangential and minor, than most governments had working on all WTO issues. WWF still maintains a large cell for this purpose in London.

Maybe ideology drove WWF. It has more than its fair share of anti-free market activists like most other NGOs based in Europe. After a traumatic internal debate in the late eighties about conservation in Africa, they appear to have taken control of WWF thinking on economics. WWF was torn between its conservationists in Africa who wanted to protect elephants and rhinos by enlisting the support of local people in eco-tourism -- including big game hunting, so they would protect the beasts against poachers -- and those who wanted the primary conservation tool to be trade sanctions against those who traded ivory.

WWF US strongly opposed managed big game hunting. The elephant was its charismatic fund raising symbol. It won out, but for the record, the beasts in East Africa did not: Poaching continued and herds remained endangered, unlike in Southern Africa where active management, including hunting, has seen them thrive.

WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth then pushed to use trade sanctions to serve other green goals -- stopping illegal dumping of hazardous wastes, restricting trade in chemicals, and stopping trade in Genetically Modified Organisms. Most recently they are pressing for trade sanctions against countries which they claim permit illegal logging and those that will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. They are well aware these measures conflict with WTO rules and that better methods are available to protect the environment. Having opted for the trade sanction route, the WTO became a definite problem. The system of multilateral trade rules was created to stop big economies becoming policy bullies and using the leverage of access to their markets to force other countries to change their ways.

WWF set out to amend the WTO so its free trade goals would be diluted whenever an important environmental issue arose and to legitimize trade sanctions in environmental agreements. It successfully pressured the EU to support these general goals; and Pascal Lamy, then EU Trade Commissioner, succeeded in getting the issue on the agenda of the Doha Round. But the rest of the members of the WTO, developing countries in particular, were opposed, and Lamy was forced to admit later the matter was a dead duck.

By this time Oxfam had joined the fray. Until the late nineties, Oxfam had supported multilateral trade liberalization. It then decided to get on the anti-globalization bandwagon and swung its economics to the old import substitution development philosophy which was such a palpable failure in the seventies. It also resurrected the idea that world commodity prices should be set by an international body. It geared up its "fair trade" (read: anti-free trade) campaign.

But it gave Governments the impression it supported the multilateral trading system and won plaudits around the world for its campaign against farm subsidies, particularly in Europe. It produced papers arguing for change in world cotton, rice and sugar markets. But its core philosophy was anti-free trade and it worked closely with other anti-free trade NGOs to promote to developing countries the idea that growth should be based on national protection and removal of barriers to access to farm products in rich countries.

Many developing countries bought the line and Oxfam was jubilant when the Doha Round stalled for the first time at the Ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico in 2002.

At around the same time, Oxfam had refashioned its "fair trade" position to embrace the long-standing anti-free trade position of the international labor movement. From the time the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was negotiated in 1948, organized labor in the US and Europe had consistently argued trade should not be free unless labor conditions (read wages) were comparable among all trading partners. This would have denied developing countries the chance which their low wage costs created to compete in world markets

And then there is Greenpeace. Consistent with the "Bad Cop" role it seems regularly to play to the "Good Cop" message WWF loves sending to the corporate world, particularly prospective donors and funders ("we are the suits of the environment movement, you can talk to us" ), Greenpeace was one of the most vociferous critics of the WTO. Its message was not coherent -- it rarely is -- and was probably tuned to keep the subscriptions rolling in. Once the WTO had been turned into the icon of the anti-globalization movement, this bandwagon was irresistible to Greenpeace.

With this background, the double Dutch about "strategic responses to interconnected challenges" should be clear. The "interconnection" that unifies the four signatories to the letter to the IHT is the common desire to cripple the WTO.

This is masked behind a call for a new "pro-development agenda". This is cant of the highest order. They wish to gut a system which has been more successful than any other to relieve poverty and reduce starvation. In the last 50 years, more people have been lifted out of poverty and at a faster rate than any time in human history.

And they wish to reintroduce the development economics which the post colonial leaders in Africa and Asia used to set India on the road to slow growth and reduced prosperity in most economies in Africa.

Their agenda is an "anti-development" agenda. They would prefer a world which was green, anti-free market and unionized than a world with growth and prosperity. Expect them not to try to bury the WTO.

Alan Oxley is a former Ambassador to the GATT, the predecessor of the WTO and Chairman of World Growth.

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