What Are the Legitimate Claims of the South?

by Lorna Salzman



I have forwarded to many colleagues an important posting from Focus on Trade on civil society organizations (CSOs) and their role in facing up to globalization and its allied institutions. I wish to add, however, some comments on two points in this posting. The first is addressed to the posting's desire to insure that the CSOs in the global north (developed countries) do not obstruct the legitimate claims of the south (less developed countries) for appropriate development. The second is addressed to the posting's desire to insure that northern CSO demands for environmental standards are not used as protectionist tools to keep out southern products and exports.

I would like to see Focus on Trade develop the first concern above at greater length. Without agreement on definitions of what constitutes "legitimate" claims or development, or for that matter on what constitutes "reasonable" demands by the north in terms of environmental standards, we could well end up arguing about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than forming a transnational global partnership and strategy to confront globalization.

As I have remarked several times in the past year or two, the dialogue about democracy, globalization, development, etc. has paid scant attention to the substantive issue of economic growth. Growth is not necessarily synonymous with development, and certainly the policies and actions we need to take to provide the minimal needs of everyone on earth - minimal equity - will involve development and growth of certain things and in certain ways (unless we opt right now for zero growth and re-distribute the entire wealth of the planet equitably, without further growth).

But to lay ourselves open to supporting the endless growth ethic promoted by globalization, rationalized by them as being necessary to help the poor, is dangerous and self-defeating. It verges on accepting their definition of social and economic reform rather than ours. I would suggest, therefore, that the definition of "legitimate" development be formulated not in terms of specific future growth and consumption, but in terms of how to meet the legitimate aspirations and needs of the people. In other words, we look at the end product we want to achieve, which would provide not only the basic requirements for people and their communities, but which would also take into account the limits of growth itself and the limits of the earth.

The Focus on Trade posting uses the example of global warming and suggests that stringent limits on fossil fuel burning may obstruct these "legitimate" needs of the poor. But it has already been shown that even the Kyoto agreement is fatally flawed, that it allows business as usual for the controlling institutions and nation states with little inconvenience or change in life style for the north, and most important that it will do next to nothing to solve the climate change problem. Independent CSOs and scientists have definitively shown that a 50 per cent to 70 per cent immediate reduction on fossil fuel consumption offers the only possibility of averting drastic climate change by the next century. Is the south going to support the north's numerical goals (a piddling initial five per cent reduction with no specific future restrictions agreed upon) on grounds that it will allow them "legitimate" development...thus ignoring the opinions of credible independent scientists sympathetic to the south's needs and demands?

Controlling Growth in the North and in the South

And if the south accepts the more drastic recommendations regarding fossil fuel limits, it will have to also accept eventual limits on its "legitimate" development demands. I am in no way disputing the claims of the south that the largest burden of responsibility lies on the north, which is primarily responsible for the climate change crisis and for over-consumption in general. But my position is that given this fact, the north must initiate serious substantive and fundamental controls on growth, including natural resource consumption, accompanied by broad strategies for redistribution of wealth in general.

It is this demand that I would like to see the south supporting, acknowledging that there are ecological limits to growth within which the economies of the south need to be accommodated for the sake of survival and justice, while acknowledging themselves the ultimate limits to planetary growth and development. Unless the north and south CSOs agree on such principles and definitions, we will be open to further manipulation by globalization institutions, leading to fragmentation and internal bickering.

Second, the issue of protectionism needs to be addressed with the latter point in mind. We all know quite well that the WTO and its corporate allies continually oppose EU restrictions on genetically modified foods as a cover for European "protectionism". Of course their accusation is absurd, since no one is proposing restrictions on non-GM foods, and the progressive forces within the EU are staunch allies politically of the people of the south (if not their government policies, which are rarely reflective of the interests of their own people).

Vandana Shiva, Walden Bello and others have forcefully argued that northern CSOs should not support the inclusion in or enforcement of environmental and labor standards in the WTO agreement, and they are completely correct for pragmatic, strategic, political and ethical reasons. But this in no way should affect the search and struggle for environmental sanity and decent labor standards among CSO allies in the north and south. As an environmental activist and anti-WTO and anti-GE campaigner, I adhere to certain principles and positions, and I am not prepared to dilute or sacrifice these out of fear of being called a protectionist. The south needs to recognize and support the good faith beliefs and actions of northern CSOs who honestly believe that there must eventually be universal standards, even if individual nation states move at different speeds and in different ways towards these standards.

Nature Bats Last

The exigencies of the planet mean that there is no double standard regarding the biosphere. Nature does not accept pollution, resource exhaustion, soil degradation, species extinction, or unsafe food, whether caused by the rich and powerful globalists, or by the poor and powerless seeking to improve their lot. The good intentions of social justice activists will be measured by nature with the same criteria. The earth will not be saved through good intentions but by specific actions, regardless of motivation. And contrary to assertions by some, technology will not save us. Nature Bats Last.

I hope that these issues, which I believe should underlie the strategies and policies of anti-globalization activists, will be articulated, discussed and incorporated in future dialogue. We must acknowledge the inherent unsustainability and inequity of present economic models founded on continued growth in production and consumption and must accordingly develop alternative models that commit themselves to socially and environmentally sustainable just means. Ecology, democracy and social justice must be linked at all times.


Focus-on-Trade is a regular electronic bulletin providing updates and analysis of trends in regional and world trade and finance.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.