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September 19, 2003

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The Fair Trade Fraternity


The upsurge was so intense at the third WTO meeting organised in Seattle in 1999, that the meeting had to be altogether abandoned. But it also left WTO a bit more clever about announcing subsequent meetings. The next venue was set in the heart of the desert in Doha, Qatar in 2001 and thus the subversion and the agitation were avoided, especially in and near the venue of the meeting.

At around 3.30 in the afternoon on September 9, at the Dhanmondi Muktomoncho --the open theatre, the crowd is yet to become dense. On the steps surrounding the round open podium upon which a big flag of Bangladesh is stretched to give a surreal semblance of a roof, the activists are busy with their last-minute chores.
The reason behind this gathering is written, literally, all over the place. The slogan “Make Trade Fair” is ubiquitous. The activists as well as a lot of participants have donned this message on their white T-shirts distributed by the Make Trade Fair Alliance. The two strips of green and the slogan together seemed to stand for this greater alliance.

Not all the organisations that make up the 'Alliance' are represented in this arena. But, it is one of the series of programmes that was a part of the campaign to 'make a noise'. In other words it is to make people aware and mobilise them to support the Fair Trade policies chalked out by Oxfam.

Concurrent with the international campaigns, the Fair Trade Allaince comprising Oxfam and its allies in Bangladesh provides a chart of pro-poor people trade policies and gives momentum to the global action against the WTO's unjust rules. The Make Trade Fair campaign kicked off after a two-year global study led by Amartya Sen, the president of Oxfam International, which is an umbrella of 22 Oxfam bodies thrown around the world.

In Bangladesh, Oxfam is running the Make Trade Fair campaign with INCIDIN Bangladesh, Kormojibi Nari, Bela, Proshika, Fulki, CPD, BRAC, SST, Action Aid, Garment Oikyo Parishad and Telecine Subtext. Together they form the core of the Alliance. A secondary level linkage was formed with organisations such as BGMEA. Shandha Pradeep in Rajshahi, Rupantar in Khulna and BITA (Bangladesh Institute of Theatre Association) in Chittagong, were mobilised in the tertiary level.

These social and cultural organisations have extended their all-out support. "We were astonished to find so many organisations and people eager to take this cause forward," recalls the Alliance Coordinator Selina Shelley who is also the Regional Campaign Advisor of Oxfam. "Sonali Sangbad”, a news daily was also active in support of the campaign. “They piously covered every aspect of it," she added acknowledging their role.

The World Trade Organisation's (WTO) history goes back to the signing of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) by the rich countries that became officially effective in January 1, 1947. The signing of GATT was the first multilateral trading system that was the immediate successor of WTO, which came about in 1995. Since its beginning it has been facing opposition particularly from developing countries.

The upsurge was so intense at the third WTO meeting organised in Seattle in 1999, that the meeting had to be altogether abandoned. But it also left WTO a bit more clever about announcing subsequent meetings. The next venue was set in the heart of the desert in Doha, Qatar in 2001 and thus the subversion and the agitation were avoided, especially in and near the venue of the meeting. In 2003, the choice of venue seems to have the same motive: to ward off unwanted agitators. After two years, people seemed to have grown in their concern and have become wiser in organising campaigns against the WTO, as was evident in the huge protest-crowd that gathered in Cancun, Mexico where the first day of the ministerial was marked by fierce protest. A Korean farmer fatally wounded himself to get the voice of the small nations registered.

With all the opposition and criticism being shored up against WTO, it still is an organisation that is growing. Its membership is increasing and in this year's council it stands at 146. Both the developed and the least developed countries (LDC) are its members. Yet in its agenda and its course of actions, WTO is blatantly tilted in favour of the rich nations: namely the United States and the countries of the European Union.

One of the hottest 'issues' of this year is subsidisation of agricultural sector by many rich countries. WTO's counterparts, which consists of students and labour organisations, indigenous people's organisations, environmental groups and other non-government organisations and civil societies throughout the world, are in favour of withdrawal of subsidies to agriculture in the US and in Europe that lead to over-production and lowering of prices of agricultural products. It is a phenomenon that hurts millions of poor peasants throughout the world.

Export dumping by rich countries to prevent the poor countries from having easy access is another issue of intense debate. Improving market access for poor countries by relaxing tariff and non-tariff barriers; ending use of conditions attached to IMF and World Bank programmes which force poor countries to open their markets regardless of the impact on the poor; establishing new and revised intellectual-property rights rules are also of prime importance.

Oxfam has a threefold agenda rolled into one. With the help of the alliance Oxfam wants to enforce a change in the national polices in favour of the poor and to eradicate rules laid down by the donors that force governments to liberalise or privatise basic services that are vital to poverty reduction. Enhancing qualities of private-sector investment and employment standards are two other pressing issues. Therefore, its charter includes lobbying for transnational companies to adopt employee-friendly policies.

It may seem like a dream to think that WTO will take into account the demands put forward by the governments of the poor countries and the organisations that are advocating on behalf of the poor. But with these policy-goals, and active participation of the people through representatives in the WTO, the poor may hope to bring this giant in favour of their interests.

Oxfam has charted its version of 'a road map' to a future without certain countries monopolising the world economy. The end of discrimination and the beginning of a need-oriented, yet pragmatic, trade structure may ensue if these issues are given serious hearing.

The fact that the dream of a garment worker to reach economic solvency is contingent upon the policies arbitrarily made in a meeting held millions of miles away is something that does not dawn even on the average educated Bangladeshi. The Make Trade Faire Alliance is trying to inculcate this very concept in a populace otherwise apathetic to issues of economical and political importance. The fact that national economy is only a part of the bigger international economic web, which puts WTO in a strong position to have an enormous leverage in the world order, often remains clouded.

Oxfam's belated campaign is not to turn the table on the rich countries but to push for the rights of the poor. It is through alterations of agendas and by scrapping biased rules and enacting favourable ones to replace them that it strives to reach its goals.

Anti-globalization protesters brandish sticks in front of the riot police line 10 September, 2003 in Cancun, Mexico. One people was injured and another one died Wednesday in violent clashes between Mexican police and protesters who tried to force their way through a barricade blocking the route to a world trade conference in Cancun.

Experts believe that the current trade practices are dividing the population into two extreme groups-- one of the rich and privileged and the other of the poor and underprivileged. Oxfam's introductory paper to the executive summery of 'rigged rules and double standard' quotes, “if Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and Latin America were each to increase their share of the world exports by one percent, the resulting gains in the income could lift 128 million people out of poverty.”

The paper elucidates how through their trade policy the rich countries are conducting “what amounts to robbery against the world's poor.” It reveals that when developing countries are to export to rich countries the tariff barriers are four times higher than those encountered by rich countries. These barriers cost the poor countries of the world a whopping $ 100 billion per year, twice as much they receive in aid.

To counter this imbalance in trade and trade polices, the unionists and non-government fronts are out to reign in the WTO and its activities. The governments of the LDC's, though belated in their awakening, too, are setting their separate agendas to take charge of the destiny of their people.

There are, as usual, “mini-priministerial meetings' that precede the WTO ministerial one, and before Cancun, the developing nations had met to come up with an agenda of their own. Dhaka played host to 24 developing countries. Though only 24 countries out of 49 developing ones, who are the members of this LDC organisation, have ratified the Dhaka Declaration, they will have a voice for the first time in the world arena.

To counter this declaration, the developed nations, transnational companies, WB and IMF have come up with their own resolutions. In their effort to galvanise their own interest, they are making effort to draw the moderately developed nations under their fold. By promising the status of “favoured nations” to china, India, South Korea and sub-Saharan countries, the WTO is trying to hold on to their end.

Though the economic giants have their own conflict of interest among themselves, WTO seems like the big brother watching over the trade sector of the world. In question of subsidy in the agricultural sector America and Europe is divided. America has found an ally in Australia. Both countries are exporters of agro-products and united in their effort to force European countries to withdraw subsidy in the agricultural sector, although both the nations are unwilling to do the same in their home ground.

When the big nations are locked in scuffle among themselves, it is through WTO, WB, MIF and transitional companies exercise their collective agenda to stand their ground in the name of "globalisation"

Globalisation may have, at the beginning, carried a note of emancipation for nations across the world. The idea, as usual, was heavily loaded with rhetoric. Now that most of the nations have snapped out of the maze of false promises, they find themselves pushing a cart that belongs to others. Many have confronted the reality with a thud, when the newer crisis was manifesting in the economic frontier.

Yet, the process of 'liberalisation,' the synonym for globalisation, is on. Bangladesh has signed a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with India, although the experts believe that it would be detrimental to our national interest. "Liberalisation" is the current trend and WTO is staying course and ready to withstand criticism and even measures to foil their meetings and agenda, though the unilateral trade agreement is now in danger as bilateral ones are increasingly becoming a way for the nations across the world.

Since Bangladesh has been the chairman of the LDC organisation for the last 25 years, and its economy is heavily dependent upon WB and IMF loans, its lobbying on behalf of the LDC is synonymous with its move in its own interest.

Today, in 2003, WTO is facing dissatisfaction from both the rich and the poor countries. the World economic and trade scenario is definitely a skewed one. The policies of the rich are being accepted by the poor. Monzurul Haq writes in The Daily Star, "the amount of subsidy that every European cow is enjoying amounts to $2.50 a day or roughly $880 per year, which is more than the amount of per capita income in Bangladesh." He concludes "there is no shortage of such equations to prove the vulnerability that backward nations are now facing in a competitive world of liberal trade practices where their competitiveness has no match for that of the advanced countries." BBC refers to this situation as "madness".

Santu Larma (in the middle), the chairman of PCJSS, gave his signature in Chittagong Hilltracts, where a crowd gathered to sign the petition on behalf of the indegenous people.

Japan, which is not a disadvantaged nation, has already expressed its concern over the blueprint that has been drafted last month at a meeting in Geneva to mobilise global trade talk before Cancun.

As for Bangladesh, the present government has voiced its resolve to stick to the Dhaka Declaration. The rich countries have reservations about many of the 13 resolutions furnished in the declaration.

When the bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement was signed with the US in Dhaka, which has put a blemish on our national integrity, their representative tried to garner support in favour of US interest, a move which was snubbed.

WTO is thoroughly shaken not only by the external forces who are pressing for policy changes and even denouncing its existence, it is also troubled by internal wrangling. WTO's 2003 trade report says, "partial RTAs (Regional Trade Agreements) could turn fears of shortcoming in multilateral framework into a self-fulfilling reality".

The report dreads the rise of transaction costs and strengthening of the hands of the projectionists.

Though in theory "protectionism" has gained a definite aura of stringency, the governments of both rich and LDC nations are concerned about WTO's free trade policy and its effect in the national economy.

Demonstrators hold placards at a rally in Dhaka yesterday to mourn South Korean farmer Lee Kyang Hae who knifed himself to death to protest the policies of World Trade Organisation now holding talks at the Mexican resort of Cancun.

Key delegations like US and Australia have warned that if their objectives are not met through a multilateral trade accord, which in the subject for debate in Cancun, they will pursue their interest through regional agreement.

Since Bangladesh is the chairman of the LDC countries, it would be interesting to notice how it pursues its agenda for the poor nations, meaning how it pursues the 13 point resolutions known as the Dhaka Declaration.

At the time of this report, Bangladeh faced strong opposition from the U.S. regarding two of its major proposals at the Cancun Summit. These proposals were agreed upon at the Dhaka Declaration and include quota and duty free access of the products from the LDC countries and the free movement of semi-skilled labour.
The quota system under Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA) will be completely phased out in January 1, 2005. If the LDCs do not receive duty and quota free access, an economic tragedy awaits them, and it certainly will hit Bangladesh the hardest. Lobbying in Cancun must be like trying to move a mountain. But if the minister for commerce on behalf of the government of Bangladesh and the representative of the Alliance, Farhan Alamgir of INCIDIN Bangladesh can make their voices heard, it will make a difference in securing a future for our garment industry.

In the people's arena, Oxfam and its allies are campaigning for fair trade. The co-ordinator of the Make Trade Fair Alliance, Selina Shelley stresses that in the national level, alongside the campaign to make people aware and get signatures of people is support of fair trade, our lobby point is the government which is the top level decision maker.

"Relation building with the government is an issue, that we took seriously. The government was involved in many important stages," says Shelley. She sites a unique event when the government even sought the assistance of Oxfam. When Canada awarded Bangladesh with certain preferences regard to its garments, there was a delay in signing of the treaty, Oxfam and the Alliance lobbied for it and the job was done. "So in many ways we were willing to use our international links to promote the interest of Bangladesh," says Shelley.

"Our role would be to support a cause, or an agenda, we are not the policy makers. We can garner peoples' support in favour of a policy or making of it" she stresses. The Alliance is playing the role of an arbiter -- a self appointed arbiter, as people are in the dark about the world-wide ramification of WTO policies.

The Fair Trade Alliance in Bangladesh has successfully conducted its awareness campaign. From the day of the launching till the eve of the WTO ministerial in Cancun, their judicious steps to mobilise the mass and the intelligentsia have seen its results.

The garment workers, the musicions and theatre activists, all came together on Sept 9, in the open theatre at Dhanmondi to raise their voice in support of Make Trade Fair.

On September 4 the Alliance submitted a million signatures to the commerce minister Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury. The eminent persons who signed the petition belong to all walks of life. Among intellectuals and performers and academics, there were many well-known persons whose signature made a difference. The prominent personalities from the filmdom were Razzak, Kabari, Moushumy, Munmun, Rokeya Prachi. From the theatre and the small screen, there were Aly Zaker, Taukir Ahmed, and the the rock-n-rolldom was represented by the likes of Azam Khan and Lucky Akhand. Among the intellectuals and academics, Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Abdullah Abu Sayeed, Mazzaffor Ahmed, Hasan Azizul Haque, M. M. Akash, Naila Kabeer's signature helped the Alliance in their effort. Among scores of politicians, Mahmudul Rahman Manna, Nazrul Islam Khan, Haider Akbar Khan Rono, Rashed Khan Menon, Tofael Ahmed, Hasanul Haq Inu, Shah S M Kibria, Jahanara Ahmed and Abul Mal Al-Muhit are the ones who signed, to name a few. Editors of prominent newspaper also gave their support.

he efforts and series of events that the Alliance has been holding in succession first sparked off in the Oxfam GB regional office in Dhaka. Oxfam launched a global campaign in all the 22 countries where they have their regional offices. As the country representative of Oxfam, Selina Shelley organised a meeting in which all the partners of Oxfam and the organisations working in the garment sector were invited.

The truck turned into container on Dhaka road.

"The first thing we decided was to focus on the garment industry, as it was the most important sector linked with the global trade-chain," says Shelly.

Nari Uddog Kendra and trade unions were also there to lend their support. "At that point we did not have a clear idea about how to see trade as a development issue. We were experts on disaster and gender issues, but trade was altogether new to us,” recalls Shelley.

Selina Shelley and Mona Laczo, the regional media and advocacy co-ordinators, together steered the first meeting on 13 March where 21 organisations came together to share information. Poverty was the issue with which everyone sympathised. And on that very day a small working-group was formed who was put in charge of 'making noise'.

From this launching pad -- where Shelly joined force with four other associates -- the campaign To Make Trade Fair began in Bangladeh.

The next few days were passed in deliberation. "We knew that the NGO formula will not be of much help in running a campaign that sought to include peoples and organisations outside the NGO web,” Shelley reveals while reflecting on how they roped in Telecine Subtext. The Alliance realised they needed support from an organisation that had clout in the media. They invited Telecine Subtext, an organisation that had prior experience in organising events and initiating media advocacy. Golam Faruk, the managing director of Telecine Subtext, remembers how they had to survey the Oxfam's fair trade policies to come up with their ideas within 2 days.

Azam Khan(L) and theatre troupe “Britto” performed a stage show on September 9, 2003 programme.

The Alliance's media campaign began with the help of Subtext in a frenzy on April 11, 2002. The men and women who contributed to it belonged to many different organisations. In their effort to disseminate the idea of Free Trade and to bring it to the attention of the people through columns, reports and editorials in the newspapers, ten eminent writers were approached. They were requested to produce articles and columns in support of fair trade. “The most heartening thing was that the writers of our choice and other intellectuals responded spontaneously,” says Shelly. Many like Selim Al Deen and Hasnat Abdul Hye wrote on this issue on their own accord, they were not short-listed by the Alliance.

To coincide the international campaign of making noise through the media, the Alliance, in Bangladesh, used trucks turned into containers to make people aware. In other countries, the slogan Make Trade Fair was put on the containers. In Bangladesh make-shift containers were made to carry the message to the people. Liftlets were distributed from these mobile centres.

As World Education Day drew nearer, which is usually observed in the last week of April, steps were taken to synchronise that programme with the 'Make Trade Fair' campaign. The coalition for Urban Poor helped spot 50 students -- young girls -- who were forced to drop out of school as a result of their mothers' dismissal from the garment factories. These young girls of 12 to 13 years of age, were the embodiment of what Shelly terms as the 'link' between the garment sector and the education.

Sari-clad Selina Shelley among the activists who made their Sept 9 programme a success.

The movement gained momentum after the Oxfam director Barbara Stalking came to Dhaka on May 4, 2002. In the last round of the national dialogue that saw the Oxfam director and the Minister of Commerce Amir Khasru in communion regarding the issues of fair trade. The series of programmes starting from April 11 till May 4 considerably popularised the idea of fair trade.

"What Bangladesh needs is easy market access for its products, not only for garments but also for shrimps and whatever little else we produce," says Shelley. She believes that the Alliance and the Bangladesh government are united in this goal.” She also stresses that the Alliance is working on behalf of the poor and their other important goal is to press for corporate responsibility.

When the world faces two extreme factions -- one with the agenda of WTO and other that wants to see its demise, Shelly asserts that Oxfam is lobbying for democratisation of WTO. "WTO is today's reality, and we are working within the system, but are vehemently opposed to the policies and priorities set by WTO," she adds.

One of her co-workers, Farheen Alamgir Shonali, a representative of INSIDIN, elaborates, "We are seeking to force them to adopt pro-poor people policies."
What economist Abul-Al-Muhit terms as "balance of power" in his speech during the signing of the petition, is exactly what Oxfam is trying to achieve. In their map the two extreme ends are the rich and the poor. This matrix the Alliance wants to alter.

"We are fighting so that WTO respects human rights, this provisions of human rights clause must be there in their agenda," emphasises Shelley. Oxfam and its allies are challenging the idea of trade that simply does not consider human interest.

As for the implementation of the rules and policies that they have already adopted, Shelley believes that they will monitor and will act as a watchdog to make sure that they follow what they have already put on paper.

Press conference at the Dhaka Press Club, September 9, 2003. (From left) Asgon Ali Sabri, Fanid Hasan Ahmed, Masud Ali and Rokeya Rofique Baby.

Farheen Alamgir Shonali sheds more light on it, "The Doha declaration is not being fully implemented. WTO agreed to make concessions as far as relaxation of TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is concerned when public health is an issue. Oxfam is monitoring WTO's activities and is concerned about how they are only willing to relax TRIPS only during an emergency like plague."

So, what Oxfam is doing to force WTO to stick to their promises? "We are using our international network to press for our demand," says Shelly. She also believes that there is no other 'force' more vehement and affective than that of the 'people'.

Her views and confidence resonate with those who are working in the international domain. Catherine Hamnet, a famous designer and an owner of her eponymous designer line, while talking to BBC stressed the need of making the public aware of the threat that WTO has become to their interest. She and Shelley has a common goal--building up a consensus for the rights of people. "Consumers are more sensitive than the governments," Hamnet's words succinctly bring out the spirit behind all that is going on: the awareness campaign, protest marches, dissemination of information, all that strive to challenge the discriminatory policies of WTO.

Photo: The Daily Star File Photo,
Telecine Subtext.




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