As far from Bill Clinton as the extremist George W.
Bush appears today, certain things hold the same for
both presidents, particularly concerning their
treatment of the world's poorest nations. Each leader
championed "free trade" and corporate globalization.
And in doing so, each imposed policies on the
developing world that have proven economically
On July 8, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
released its annual Human Development Report, which
revealed what the British Guardian called a "Lost
Decade." During the economically prosperous 1990s,
U.S. trade representatives and International Monetary
Fund (IMF) economists promised that a rising tide of
global corporate expansion would lift all boats. In
fact, 54 countries ended the decade poorer than when
In places where the majority of people live on less
than a dollar per day, or where life expectancy is
less than half that in the U.S., these declines have
People in the United States often believe that
while global poverty is tragic, poor countries have
only themselves to blame. Certainly, the developing
world is not free from the scourges of corruption,
mismanagement, and political opportunism. But
documents like the UNDP report show that the
development policies promoted by wealthy countries
have done far more harm than good.
In what is now known as the "Washington Consensus,"
the IMF and the World Bank have fitted country after
country into straitjackets of "structural adjustment."
Rich countries often attach self-serving conditions to
money they send to cash-starved nations. The IMF
demands market "liberalizations" that make poor
nations open their markets to European and American
companies. Frequently, economic relief is contingent
on the adoption of fiscal austerity, which forces
developing countries to cut spending on health,
education, and infrastructure.
Poor nations must also spend inordinate portions of
their national budgets on debt payments to the global
North. As groups like the Jubilee debt relief
coalition have argued, many of these obligations are
"odious" -- the result of loans made to dictators that
used the money for personal gain. In many cases, the
funds were spent on weapons sold by wealthy countries,
who happen to be the world's leading arms merchants. A
disturbing trend reported in the mid-1990s showed that
84% of U.S. weapons transfers to the developing world
in the opening years of that decade went to
After citizens remove the despots from office, they
are rewarded with the past governments' huge debts.
This cripples their ability to build new societies.
The unfairness of the burden is precisely why the Bush
Administration advocates debt relief for Iraq.
Unfortunately, its compassion does not extend to
countries whose reconstruction provide less tangible
PR benefits for the White House.
Economist Mark Weisbrot has noted that even in
Sub-Saharan Africa, a region suffering devastating
poverty, the governments are sending more money to the
industrialized North than we are to them. Largely
owing to debt service, the balance of payments shows a
$12 billion loss for the region.
Finally, "free trade" does not end up being free
for developing nations. Anyone who bothered to notice
the agricultural subsidies and steel tariffs recently
bolstered by the Bush Administration already knows
that the economics of corporate globalization are
elaborately regulated to benefit some countries at the
expense of others.
In many of the countries that fared worst in the
1990s, the AIDS crisis played a big role. But in many
others that faced stagnation and decline, "structural
adjustment" paved the road to ruin. As Weisbrot
observes, the "winners" of the 90s, those who saw real
development, were the governments that defied IMF
dictates. China and India -- the very nations that the
Human Development Report credits with substantially
reducing poverty over the decade -- have some of the
most protected domestic economies on the planet.
In its recent Nation Security Strategy, the Bush
Administration announced that there is a "single
sustainable model for national success." But instead
of a "single model," we need genuine democracy and
self-determination -- economies in the developing
world that are accountable to their own people, rather
than to financial institutions abroad. UNDP
Administrator Mark Malloch Brown said it in no
uncertain terms: we need "a guerrilla assault" on the
A new system of international economics will rely
on different type of globalization.
Whatever the failures of the decade, something
remarkable also happened during the 1990s. Across the
globe, activists united to denounce policies like
structural adjustment. In this country, people began
making connections between conditions overseas and
inequality at home. Union members whose factory
positions were "downsized" met with workers in Mexico
who endured hazardous job conditions and received
sweatshop wages. Voters in California who saw their
ban on the poisonous gas additive MTBE challenged as
an unfair trade barrier understood with new clarity
what international coalitions have identified as an
environmental "race to the bottom." By the end of the
decade, the IMF couldn't hold a meeting without
massive police force ready to keep away crowds of
protestors demanding to address the proceedings.
Today, more and more development experts are
joining those crowds. Their motivation is clear: In
1980, the average CEO in the United States made as
much as 42 workers. By 2001, the CEOs earned 411 times
as much. Worldwide, the divide grew so severe that the
richest 1% of the world's population earns as much
money as the poorest 57%.
Global inequality grew under Clinton, and is
increasing under Bush. For the next decade to be
different, the call for a new globalization must
-- Mark Engler, a commentator for Foreign Policy in
Focus, can be reached via the web site http://DemocracyUprising.com.
Research assistance for this article provided by Katie