Successive U.S. governments have relied on a simple catechism: the World Trade Organization equals free trade, which equals development. With this rationale the nation has been led into regional (NAFTA) and international (WTO) trade agreements. These so-called “free trade” agreements are in fact systems of protectionist rules—protecting the property of global investors while weakening the rights of governments to protect their workers, their public health, and their environment.
To oppose this kind of globalization is not to oppose globalization itself. New York Times globalization cheerleader Thomas Friedman, in a rare moment of balanced analysis, captured what the debate on globalization should be about: “[Globalization] has both empowering and enriching features and disempowering and impoverishing features, and it all depends on how you manage it. If you think globalization is all good or all bad, you don’t get it.”
So how are we managing globalization? Friedman is not much help in answering the question he posed. He has been too busy attacking those who question how globalization is being managed to shed much light on the issue himself. In fact, his silence is not unusual for supporters of the corporate version of globalization. For those corporations who are protected, globalization is being managed just fine. But millions of people around the world see it differently.
Public health is a stark example. Diseases that are under control in the developed world cause millions of premature deaths in the developing world. One of the main reasons is a group of WTO patent protection laws that have had a substantial impact on the price of drugs within the developing world where people’s need for drugs is great and their ability to pay is not.
This is best illustrated by the HIV/AIDS crisis. An estimated thirty-six million people worldwide live with HIV—twenty-five million in Africa alone. Nineteen million people have died of AIDS, and 5.4 million are newly infected every year. Some estimates suggest that half a billion people will be infected with HIV by the year 2020. Other predictions are worse. Entire African nations are on the verge of collapse because teachers, military personnel, doctors, health care professionals, and civil servants are dying of AIDS.
Yet HIV is a treatable chronic disease. The mortality rate for the roughly four hundred thousand people with AIDS who live mainly in Europe and North America and who have access to patented anti-retroviral therapy has dropped by more than 70 percent. But this therapy costs about $10,000 per year for the drugs alone. In 1999, in Africa, if deaths had occurred at the much lower European or North American rates, more than 1.5 million fewer Africans would have died of AIDS. The reasons for these premature deaths are various—poor nutrition, inadequate water and sanitation, poor health infrastructure—but limited access to life-savings drug...
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