Friday, June 30, 2006

Globalization and participation

One view of globalization says that globalization itself - whatever it is - has not really happened for much of the world, that its promises are largely unfulfilled. The French economist, Daniel Cohen, argues that globalization is not a relation of exploitation (the North's exploitation of the South), but one of constantly dashed aspirations. Cohen writes that "on the relatively short time scale of capitalism, what is striking is [globalization's] poor capacity to diffuse technical progress rather than its propensity to impose progress everywhere." The central claim is that the world's poor is excluded from globalization, not that globalization necessarily rests on relations of exploitation and manipulation.

A further claim is that much of the world views Northern / Western technological, economic, and political development as presenting desirable examples for a better world for poorer countries and peoples. No one wants a superimposed model exported from, say, the US, which would restructure the whole of a society towards an American-style emphasis on economic growth and rugged individualism über alles. That would not be participation, but tyranny. Rather, the question is one of both access to processes of globalization and participation in creating the rules by which the world operates. "For countries in the South, and to a certain degree for European countries with respect to the United States, to be dispossessed from creating new knowledge and new technology is equated with exclusion from History... Poor countries want sewers and medicines. These wants do not conflict with a desire to participate in writing a global history that does not amount to mechanically imitating the most advanced countries."

Although it's easy to view North-South relations as built upon an edifice of exploitation, I think something like Cohen's view is important. You see it traveling, talking to and working with the poor around the world. I once talked to a man selling off family trinkets in a market in Kathmandu (in Nepal, the fourth poorest country in the world). He took me back to his home for tea. His wife moaned softly under a mosquito net, suffering from malarial fever. The man told me that I had no need to be ashamed of my ability to have traleved to Nepal. He would do the same if he lived in a different economy. He would travel the world. Being born into one economy or the other was an accident of existence.

We often assume, however, that disparities in economic well-being are a product of some inherent superiority. This assumption runs through the grand development organizations as well and leads them to operate on the further assumption that their models of economic well-being are universally correct. Students of development issues know that this assumption is erroneous. Development itself could be otherwise, although the very language by which we describe development implies a progression from Point A to Point B where those points are pre-defined by those in the position of Point B. In other words, it suggests a law to history and progress that a genuinely historical perspective (and philosophical critique) cannot confirm. While this "law" is attractive to those who benefit from its implementation in the tools of trade, markets, and economic institutions, the tools and those who benefit continue to inscribe a certain vision of history on the world that excludes the world's majority from that history. Either you're in it, according to the "law," or you're outside of it. We then entertain otherwise spurious theses about "clashes of civilizations" and so on - the inside and the outside to the law of global rightness. But it's the "law" itself that needs rewriting if it is to be one of genuine participation.

If we take a peek at more concrete processes of globalization, in terms of global trade, we see mechanisms that are less exploitative (in the sense of exploitation discussed above) than they are a function of the relative inability to participate in writing the rules of global trade. The WTO is itself one of those exclusive organizations, which presents itself as the arbiter of global fairness, at least regarding trade disputes.

Today, an article in the Washington Post underscores one of these prime examples. But it requires maintaining a savvy distinction between appearance and reality.

Farm trade, though by no means the only issue, is the chief focus of the Doha round of trade talks, named for the Qatari capital, where they were launched in 2001. That is because agricultural goods, the mainstay of many poor countries' economies, face steep tariffs and other obstacles in the markets of many rich countries. Another major grievance of developing nations is the billions of dollars in subsidies that farmers in rich countries receive from their governments. The payments encourage excess production of crops, which leads to gluts on world markets, depressing prices.

Time and again, the WTO's 149 members have missed self-imposed deadlines to agree on how to cut farm tariffs and subsidies, and tariffs on manufactured goods. A gathering in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003 collapsed, and subsequent deadlines in December 2005 and April 2006 were not met. This weekend, negotiators are struggling with a draft accord with more than 760 passages marked in brackets indicating differences in negotiating positions, an exceptionally high number.

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