Access, Free Trade and Trade Justice

I’ve been fortunate to be able to attend two remarkable events the past two weeks. I got a chance to hear leaders in business, health and government speak about how they see the future and trends they think will shape it.

I’ve heard the claim that we live in a world of communication–content and technology–unlike any humans have known before, and this is changing us in fundamental ways.

I’ve heard a lot about collaboration, partnership, information sharing, and access. There were references to the value of open source enterprises yet they weren’t referring to Linux, they referred to collaborative projects in business and health.

And I heard visionaries speak of the future in ways that are rather amazing to me. CEOs of major corporations are talking about globalization and poverty reduction. Heads of global health organizations and government officials are discussing partnerships to change the world, especially those places where human suffering is still the defining characteristic of daily life.

Frankly, I didn’t expect to hear this in the places where I’ve been, not because I think these leaders don’t know about poverty and human struggle, but because the rap against many of them is that they and their corporations don’t really care about that part of the world that can’t pay for their products or services.

But I’ve heard pharmaceutical executives explain why they continue to develop drugs to treat diseases that occur in less wealthy nations where it’s obvious they won’t get a return on their investment. And I’ve heard about open sourcing the knowledge derived from this research. I heard a Japanese executive explain why his company acted out of corporate social responsibility to establish bed net production in Tanzania, India and China.

One of the most intriguing speeches I heard was by Frederick Smith, CEO of FedEx. He spoke of the work FedEx has done to identify the power of access as the key to building the global economy.

Time and space today are collapsing,” Smith told the World Business Forum, “and availability of information is expanding.”

At first blush this seems self-evident but then he laid out what he sees as the benefits.

“This shifts power from producers to consumers who are more savvy and discerning, giving them more buying power. It stimulates demand to consumers, gives greater economic activity, higher living standards and expectations, which spawns innovation and greater access, and the cycle continues,” Smith said.

It’s true that in some parts of the world where infrastructure, education, poverty and restrictive policies are prevalent, access is limited. The generals in Myanmar shut down the Internet, for example. China has blocked access as well. But India and some emerging economies in Africa are examples of the power of access.

When access is available Smith said, “it connects people, empowers them, enhances well being, gives them choices, improves quality of life. Access to health care, clean water, sanitation increases life expectancy and decreases infant mortality, it expands employment opportunities.”

I was reminded of micro loans to women in Bangledesh and other developing nations which they use to buy cell phones and then sell telephone services to their neighbors.

I was also reminded of the joy of a retired history professor in one of our training events in Zimbabwe when he first learned how to Google a subject of interest. He literally bounced in his chair with excitement, but more telling, he said, “My world has changed.”

Indeed, the world has changed for all of us. I don’t mean to say market forces don’t drive globalization. They do. Profit is still the same powerful force it always was. And workers in developed economies have paid a price in loss of jobs. Their economic pain is wrenching. I don’t think it’s been dealt with adequately. I don’t think the glib answers I’ve heard about how unfortunate this is, but that we should move it forward anyway, are adequate. Those who’ve lost their jobs aren’t nearly so sure it’s been a good thing. And the benefits haven’t reached down across the board in developing economies. I worry about blue collar workers especially but outsourcing has moved more broadly than blue collar jobs. And now India is outsourcing jobs that were recently outsourced by U.S. corporations.

So claims that globalization is the pathway to the world’s future need a critical eye. The May, 2007 issue of Sojourners cast an eye on the moral issues encompassed in trade justice, which are significantly different from opening up global trade alone.

Mohamad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank has created micro markets that empower people locally and as they become economically self-sufficient they gain access to an expanding range of information, services and products. But most importantly, they experience self-determination. The word “justice” adds a whole new dimension to the conversation about globalization.

But access is empowering. One of the roles that non-profits can play effectively is enabling access by recognizing their power to engage people in remote regions where they not being reached by others. This is the strength of many faith organizations.They are present in places off the grid and beyond cell phone coverage. They’re with people who aren’t viable economic markets for businesses.

If access is to achieve the promise of empowerment, those who have least and struggle most must be connected. That will change the world.

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