A midwestern activist and latter-day Paul Revere who challenges international trade policies in the name of global cooperation.
If anyone can take credit for making global trade an issue of concern to both North American farmers and environmentalists, it’s Mark Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). In 1986, a decade before the World Trade Organization (WTO) came into existence, Ritchie, then a policy analyst for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, began sounding alarm bells about the dangers to family farms and the environment posed by several proposed international trade agreements.
The U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement—precursor to the North American Free Trade Agreement—and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (gatt) were quietly being negotiated by bureaucrats in Washington, Ottawa, and Geneva. “At that time, most people had blind faith that international trade was a positive thing,” Ritchie says. “Our biggest challenge was educating people to question this acceptance of free trade as good.”
As one of the founding organizers of the international boycott of Nestlé (for its advertising campaign convincing Third World mothers to switch from breast-feeding to infant formula), Ritchie had extensive contacts with activist groups the world over. Like a modern-day Paul Revere, he began spreading the word that the proposed trade deals were undemocratic and threatened to dismantle environmental, labor, and consumer protections.
“That got progressives thinking about how international institutions were being manipulated by corporations,” says Ritchie. And it helped galvanize a broad, if unlikely, coalition that spanned the political spectrum from Ralph Nader to Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan.
Since then, Ritchie and his colleagues at the iatp have pursued a dual insider-outsider strategy. They continue to stoke the anti-globalization movement’s fires, organizing grassroots opposition to nafta, gatt, and the WTO. Key components of the corporate globalization strategy—an expansion of gatt’s authority, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, and an expansion of nafta—have been held back, in large part due to activist opposition. At the same time, Ritchie has worked within the system alongside representatives of other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world to influence trade negotiators to address farmer, labor, consumer, and environmental concerns.
This dual strategy has resulted in some success on both fronts. The NGOs have gotten language inserted into numerous trade agreements acknowledging the importance of those issues, but so far with little more than lip service. Meanwhile, the number and diversity of organizations joining the anti-globalization movement have ballooned beyond what anyone imagined.
The cacophony of voices that burst onto the scene in the streets of Seattle two years ago is both a strength and a weakness of the movement, according to Ritchie. By successfully shutting down WTO meetings there, the protests gave NGOs from around the world much-needed time to better organize their efforts to have “civil society”—interests beyond business—represented in these international forums. And the string of protests since then, in Genoa, Quebec City, and elsewhere, has drawn enough media attention that the public is beginning to learn about these issues. He cautions, though, that protests are reactive, disorganized, and, given the media tendency to sensationalize violence, a difficult forum for presenting a clear message.
The challenge now, says Ritchie, is to organize that cacophony of voices so that activists can present a positive alternative vision of global cooperation that is rooted in principles of sustainability, respect for diversity, and social justice. Toward that end, IATP has been working with the 647 NGOs that were registered to attend the November WTO meeting in Doha, Qatar, to create a team of delegates elected by the NGOs to represent what they’ve come to call “civil society groups.”
Recreating the entire system of global economic institutions to give representatives voicing these issues an equal seat at the negotiating table alongside business and governments may sound like a tall order, but Ritchie is undaunted: “This is not the first time this sort of thing has been done. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, the Food and Agriculture Organization, just to name a few, all came about because civil society organized and pressured our global institutions for change.”