Volume 1, Number 8
1 May 2001

Protesting Globalization

Dear Friends,

We stood in a friendship circle, about fifty of us, arms intertwined, and singing. It was a high school institute of international affairs, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, at Ferry Beach, Maine, in 1951. As we sang, we opened up the circle to face the ocean and countries beyond.

Now wider and wider our circle expands,
Vive la compagnie,
We sing to our comrades in far away lands,
Vive la compagnie.

Quakers have always opened their hearts to peoples of other lands. My international career, where I have served in about 35 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, arose out of my Quaker belief in that of God in all persons. I met my future wife, Robin, in a tent camp in Paris, while she was on her way to a Quaker work camp to help rebuild war-torn Austria, and I to work in a factory in Lille, France. Later on, as I taught, lectured, or gave economic counsel in other countries, I preached the principle of "Trade, Not Aid." In a previous letter, I told you how I also wandered for days in the slums of every Latin American capital except Havana, and several African cities. I wanted to learn how I might help better the conditions of those wretched inhabitants. The answer was always, "jobs, and trade."

Imagine my shock, in 1999, to discover that many Quakers had participated in the Seattle riots against the World Trade Organization, and that much of their protest had to do with keeping jobs away from the poorest of the poor abroad, so that our much-better-cared-for workers might have them instead. The World Trade Organization, they said, was not democratic and is run by multinational corporations (MNCs) for their profit. In fact, the World Trade Organization is run much the same way as the United Nations and is certainly no more undemocratic. Both the WTO and the International Monetary Fund reach their decisions by consensus among members. Voting is rare.

Worst of all is the anti-globalization sentiment — that we should not open up our hearts to the rest of the world. Why? Is it anti-globalization as such, or the means by which globalization is occurring, and the role of multinationals? Protesters charge that MNCs damage the poor, but I have never heard them explain precisely how.

I think I know. On a street corner in Santiago Chile in 1971, I bought a copy of Secret Documents of the ITT. The International Telephone and Telegraph Company had urged the U.S. Government to prevent the accession to power in Chile of Salvador Allende, who they thought would expropriate their company. The documents were leaked to the press, where they made an uproar in the United States but were not published here. When I got home I took them to the Under-Secretary of State for Latin America. "Can these be true?" I asked. They were. He was furious, because he had not been consulted (he would have opposed).

The people of Nigeria are so dirt poor they risk their lives breaking into oil pipelines to steal oil. Some have been killed by explosions. Yet the companies pay royalties to a corrupt, greedy government that cares little about the poor.

In Guatemala our government prevented a revolution that might have brought a left-wing president who would have confiscated the properties of our banana producers.

I could go on and on. Multinational corporations are no angels! So, are they all evil? Are they not managed by people, and is there not that of God in every person?

In 1976, the International Labor Office published a research report, Wages and Working Conditions in Multinational Enterprises. Surprise! In country after country after country, it found that MNCs paid wages higher than the domestic companies, even up to 150% higher (but sometimes only 10% or 15% higher). In very few cases did MNCs pay as little as domestic corporations. Furthermore, they offered far better working conditions - schools, housing, health care, severance pay, and other fringe benefits — than did local companies. They also provide skills, technology and training that are absorbed by the local people. So, how do we balance the good against the evil?

In my home town of Boulder, Colorado, a student was murdered on the street a few years ago. But no one stereotypes all Boulderites as murderers. Those who stereotype MNCs suppose that the worst practices are done by all. In general, however, MNCs are decent citizens. They pay their taxes; they do not normally bribe, and most of the time they obey the laws. Like the rest of us, they know they would get in trouble otherwise (as they have). To me, the viciousness of MNCs should be approached just like the viciousness of anyone. (Punishment, incentives to behave well, you name it). But don't deprive the poor of the jobs, amenities, and technology that MNCs bring.

Ah yes, MNCs buy from sweatshops. I have been in sweatshops in less developed countries. Some of them are airy and light, offering pleasant working conditions. But others (where I have not been) treat their employees cruelly, insisting on 18-hour work days, punishing them by not letting them go to the bathroom when needed, and even dragging them by the hair if they try to strike. I have not seen these conditions (no one would let me), but I have read about them from reliable sources. In sweatshops everywhere, wages are low, often less than is required for a decent subsistence even in slum shacks.

Students, human rights organizations, and others in the comfortable world have been protesting conditions in sweatshops. But there is a dilemma. Sweatshops permeate Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Wages are low everywhere, and the treatment is cruel. As I visited the slums in these countries, I heard this story from all sides. Impoverished people are clamoring for jobs in sweatshops — there are not enough of them! Families will starve unless their children work in them.

If we discourage MNCs from buying from sweatshops that employ children, they simply fire the children. "In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage children. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets — that a significant number were forced into prostitution" (Paul Krugman in New York Times, 4/22/01).

Even that is not the worst. Starving families in Asia and Africa sell their children into slavery and prostitution. Yes, slavery still exists - in Sudan, Mauritania, and elsewhere. The dealers have taken children to Saudi Arabia to beg in the streets or to become prostitutes. Children who do not fall into their hands often find work in unclean factories where their lives are in danger, the work more exhausting, and the bosses more cruel and demanding than in the sweatshops.

So, what can we do? Largely as a result of American protests, Gap was able to improve working conditions in its supply shops in El Salvador (New York Times, 4/24/01). The employees now have bathroom breaks and can complain to a board of independent monitors. But Gap has not been able to raise their wages.

Why not? Because there is always a long line of unemployed at the doors, and if workers complain about what they earn, or if they strike, they will be fired and replaced. If Americans insist on higher wages, the sweatshops will move elsewhere.

Every economist knows why. As Krugman writes, "Third-world countries aren't poor because their export-workers earn low wages; it's the other way around." The only way to increase wages in Third-World countries (or anywhere) is to increase the productivity (output per hour) of workers. How? By increased capital and training, the very things that MNCs bring.

Also by trade. The more we buy, the greater the demand for workers, and the higher the wages. So, boycotting sweatshops makes the poor poorer, not the other way around. As Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs has said, "What this world needs is more sweatshops."

So, are the protesters wrong? Not necessarily. They have waked us up to the injustices and poverty of the world. Good job! Trouble is, with few exceptions they haven't studied economics or history, so many of them don't know what they have discovered — or what to do about it.

Neither do I, yet I have devoted a professional lifetime to studying and knowing people in poverty. All I can offer is a few hints. The protesters at Seattle, Prague, Washington, and Quebec have been lashing out angrily at the whole world, without focusing on the small things they can do. They can improve conditions in sweatshops (witness, Gap in El Salvador), but they can't raise wages there, nor can they order the employers to send their workers to school. They can engage in micro-credit projects through the Quaker organization, Right Sharing of the World's Resources. (More on that in a subsequent Letter). They can't make multinational corporations eschew profits, but by gaining access to the CEOs (instead of damning them) they may help persuade them that bribery and overthrowing governments is not in their best interests. The CEOs are learning this on their own, but a little "help" would do no harm.

But just raising an unfocused hullabaloo about globalization will get the protesters nowhere. (In a subsequent Letter, I will report on two globalization agents, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Hint: I have serious reservations about them, but they mean well).

I am told that 80 Quakers were at Quebec to protest the meeting to form the Free Tade Area of the Americas. I would appreciate it very much if someone who is opposed to that treaty would write a response to the present letter. Send it to clq-comment@quaker.org. Many thanks.

Oh yes, now for the second verse:

A friend on your left and a friend on your right
Vive la compagnie,
In love and good fellowship let us unite,
Vive la compagnie!

Vive la, vive la, vive l'amour,
Vive la, vive la, vive l'amour,
Vive l'amour, vive l'amour,
Vive la compagnie!

Sincerely your Friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Please send comments on any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

Vive! Frankly my life has been so full of busyness lately, that it was a surprise to me when your Letter drew me in and I found myself at the end, vivefied. I hope to compose an item about the Letter for our Sunday bulletin before long, and perhaps also to be sent to my local Friends list. Thanks for your dedication!

— Terry Hokenson, Minneapolis (MN) Friends Meeting.

I can't add anything to your article on globalization and trade, except to say I agree with you completely. Unfortunately, as you and I both know all too well, these reasons continue to fall on deaf ears among most Friends. For a corroborating but not quite as "friendly" opinion on this subject, there is an excellent article by Peter DuPont at opinionjournal.com this morning (2 May).

— Peace, Dick Bellin, Friends Meeting of Washington (DC).

I could not disagree more with the sentiments you express here, in "Protesting Globalization." I honor your good instincts, but must correct some facts. First and most obviously, the date of the WTO protest in Seattle was in 1999, not 1998 [text corrected, thanks — Jack]. Second, there were no "riots," unless you count the police rampages against protesters, who were overwhelmingly nonviolent. Please read my account in the March 2000 Friends Journal; it is as accurate as I could possibly make it, and after considerable subsequent analysis by people closer to the scene, I stand by it completely.

— David Morse, Storrs (CT) Friends Meeting.

Note: Nowhere in the entire letter, of which the above is an excerpt, does David mention that in the May 2000 Friends Journal, Brewster Grace of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva replied to his (David's) article. Brewster found numerous inaccuracies in David's article. I have read them both, and — having followed trade agreements since their inception in the 1930s — I believe Brewster is correct. Friends may now go to their Meeting libraries, read both sides, and make up their own minds. I will not carry this polemic further. — Jack

Being part of a very active Quaker community and being committed to the community of spirit in action I observe the participation of many Friends and friends in community as a movement of spirit towards a moment of understanding that will allow the light within to permeate all daily lives. It is saddening but enlightening to observe the severe reaction of many who are not aware of the presence of spirit in our lives. In communing with those who are participating in righteous displays of their truths I am convinced that we must not be affected by fears that would suppress and distort our truths — every aversion, in my opinion, dims the light within and reduces the radiance of humankind. My community demands my voice be clear and my presence noteable — I comply.

— Pura Vida, Bernie Macdonald, Mendocino Monthly Meeting, Albion (CA).


RSVP: Write to "tqe-comment," followed by "@quaker.org" to comment on this or any TQE Letter. (I say "followed by" to interrupt the address, so it will not be picked up by spam senders.) Use as Subject the number of the Letter to which you refer. Permission to publish your comment is presumed unless you say otherwise. Please keep it short, preferably under 100 words. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

To subscribe, at no cost, visit our home page.

Each letter of The Quaker Economist is copyright by its author. However, you have permission to forward it to your friends (Quaker or no) as you wish and invite them to subscribe at no cost. Please mention The Quaker Economist as you do so, and tell your recipient how to find us on the web.

The Quaker Economist is not designed to persuade anyone of anything (although viewpoints are expressed). Its purpose is to stimulate discussions, both electronically and within Meetings.


Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

Previous Letter | Home Page | Next Letter