Global Economy

Located in the coastal city of Mombasa in Kenya, Bombolulu Workshops employs 150 artisans, most of them with physical disabilities. They make jewelry, clothes, and wooden sculptures. In addition to being a major center for rehabilitation, Bombolulu functions like a modern enterprise with its own marketing and design departments. The center derives some of its income from tourists, who are drawn to the restaurant and the cultural center where they learn about the Bukusu, Maasai, Giriama, Orma, and Luo tribes.

If Bombobulu depended on this tourist trade alone, however, it could not employ nearly the number of artisans it currently does. The Workshops are connected to fair trade organizations throughout the world, which sell the handicrafts at fair prices.“We are an organization of fair trade because we adhere to the standards of fair trade,” says Anastacia Wanjiko Munyao, who is responsible for Bombolulu’s exports.  “We respect equality of opportunity and we do not permit any employment discrimination: 65 percent of our employees are women.  We do not use child labor.  The prices of our products are fair and permit us to guarantee as large a wage as possible for our employees as well as offer them other advantages.”  These advantages include a savings and loan cooperative, medical benefits, housing, and trade union membership.

As the example of the Bombolulu Workshops suggests, the global economy does not have to mean sweatshops in the Global South and over-consumption in the Global North. Another world is indeed possible, and it can be found in many examples around the world.  The global economy has long had a double-edged quality.  For thousands of years, from the ancient Near East to the Silk Road through Asia. global trade has encouraged the exchange of ideas and culture to the enrichment of societies on both sides of the Equator.  Unfortunately, world trade has also meant exploitation.  The spice trade, the slave trade, and the trade in precious metals brought colonial powers to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  In the 20th century, the exchange of commodities has disproportionately benefited the wealthier countries of the north.  Only a very few countries, such as South Korea, have managed to break out of the colonial model to become strong trading powers in their own right.

In the late 1970s, states of various ideological hues began to open up to the international economy through the privatization of assets, the elimination of trade and investment barriers, and the removal of high tax rates.  In 1995, with the creation of the World Trade Organization, the global circulation of goods and capital increased exponentially.  At the same time, transnational corporations like Nike, Coca-Cola, WalMart, and others have made “globalization” a dirty word by pulling their factories out of high-wage, high-regulation countries and relocating where the profit margins are higher and there are few obligations to observe health and safety standards.  The spread of what has been called “neoliberal economics” has created a global environment in which corporations can move freely but workers cannot, states have fewer levers to control their economies, and environmental, labor, and consumer standards are being forced down to the lowest common denominator.  Fair trade is one answer to these trends.  Another is the cultivation of the local – to rely on local farmers, businesses, and communities.

How is it possible to stimulate economic growth that can benefit the poor and not just the rich? Will our addiction to economic growth lead to the consumption of the rest of the world’s resources?  A rules-based trading system, in theory, places the less powerful and the more powerful on an even playing field – is it possible to transform the WTO into such a fair rules-based organization?  How can we strike a balance between buying local and celebrating the global?  What role can the state play in the economy in this age of privatization on the one hand and globalization on the other?  Do wealth-generating strategies like micro-lending – as in the famous Grameen Bank of Bangladesh – help the poorest of the poor or do they merely widen economic disparities within communities?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read Lori Wallach’s blistering critique of the WTO entitled Whose Trade Organization?,check out the articles on global justice in the lively British mag New Internationalist, log on to Whirled Bank for the best in global economic satire, listen to David Rovics urging everyone to “Shut Them Down” off his album Living in These Times, see Seth Tobocman’s startling graphic images in “The World is Being Ripped” in his collection You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive, and watch the madcap adventures of the Yes Men as they pretend to be WTO officials pitching recycled human waste as hamburgers.

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