Nobel Ideas – PART ONE

15 Sep 2004

The small farmers, fishermen, processors, nomadic herders and other participants coming to ‘Terra Madre: World Meeting of Food Communities’ are those most exposed to the effects — too often negative — of big decisions taken on the international stage by institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

They are too far removed from the world inhabited by the globalizing bureaucrats for their opinions and everyday problems to be understood, let alone strong enough to influence their prospects for development without assistance.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize Winner for Economics in 2001 and a person with vast academic achievements and practical experience within the World Bank, wrote in his book Globalization and its Discontents that ‘Modern war, increasingly based on advanced technology, aims to eliminate human contact: releasing bombs from a height of 15,000 meters allows you to be oblivious to the effects of what you are doing. Modern economic management is similar: from a luxurious hotel suite you can impose policies destroying the lives of many people without a qualm, but it causes no concerns because nobody knows’.
I wanted to speak with Stiglitz about the problems facing Terra Madre communities from a macroeconomic standpoint, given his experience at the heart of some of the major world decision-making bodies.

C.P: Five years have passed since Seattle and three since 9/11, events which, as you say, have made us suddenly realize that we all share the same planet. You believe that the IMF and the World Bank can still change their approach as a result of this realization that we are a global community — that they can begin to adopt fair and just rules, meeting the wishes and needs of all those vulnerable people affected by their policies.

J.S.: Yes I still think so, but I also think it will be a very long and difficult process. What has happened in global trade so far reveals the enormous challenge of shifting to the right track. After Seattle the world community finally realized that the system was not fair or balanced. Even the decision-makers had to face the evidence and at Doha it was agreed there should be a Development Round. Unfortunately, at least until the end of last July [when the WTO decided to eliminate almost all subsidies on exports to poor countries and remove the most unfair customs duties Ed.], there has been nobody in the US or rest of the world taking the initiative. The US and Europe have continued to slide on the promises made at Doha. We can say there has been progress in recognizing the problem, but there hasn’t been much work in actually moving towards a real solution.

C.P.: The WTO seems to have taken a first step, it remains to be seen how this new — and in principle positive — approach will be implemented and interpreted in legislative measures by bureaucrats in transnational bodies and individual countries. But returning to the recent past, do you think that recent wars have had a significant effect on hindering progress towards real opportunities for development? How much have the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq distracted attention from these issues?

J.S.: Not much, I think, but I would like to answer this question in another way. The way in which the US went to war shows the dangers of a unilateralist approach. It also shows the importance of democracy: when there is only one person making a decision there is a very significant chance that the person may not be right. Bush was wrong for many reasons, from the inexistence of weapons of mass destruction to the links with Al Qaeda. If there had been a proper working democracy we would never have got to this point. In the same way, the problems of economic unilateralism, often discussed when talking about globalization, pose questions about a lack of democratic principles. People are beginning to realize that this is not just a question of economics but the issues involve all aspects of global society.

C.P.: One of the reasons used to justify the war was a presumed wish to bring democracy to those areas. I asked you the last question because in Europe this reason was criticized by the Churches, who with the Jubilee 2000 movement asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – and in part succeeded – to cancel the debt of poor countries. I would like to better understand how the IMF’s unilateral and undemocratic actions manage to destroy the good intentions of those striving to change the global economic rules. Particularly considering the predominant role played by the United States.

J.S.: In fact one of the biggest problems of a body like the International Monetary Fund is that the United States is the only country with a veto, obviously an excessive exercise of power. Unfortunately, the IMF was created at the end of the Second World War and still reflects the political situation that existed at that time, with the clear dominance of the United States over a weak global scene. But since then, things have changed enormously in the economic sphere and the original intentions that prompted the setting up of the IMF have been completely disregarded. If the US had wanted to work in a multilateral and cooperative way, I am sure that there wouldn’t have been problems and mistakes. But with the justification of providing economic aid, they manage to impose political decisions from above on countries that in many cases are attempting — at their own pace and according to their own potential — to identify their own development path. They are obliged to accept an outdated free-trade approach, typical of decision-makers within the IMF [what Stiglitz calls ‘free market fundamentalism’ Ed.]. It is an approach which does not help but enslaves them, and in practice ends up being a new form of colonialism.

First published in La Stampa on September 2 2004

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

Change the world through food

Learn how you can restore ecosystems, communities and your own health with our RegenerAction Toolkit.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Full name
Privacy Policy
Newsletter