Church Activists Oppose Free Trade: Compassion or Ideology?
An initiative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Hunger Program is organizing U.S. and overseas activists to oppose free trade agreements and resist corporate investments in developing countries. This “Joining Hands” initiative was featured in a workshop at an April 5 PCUSA-sponsored conference on “food justice.”Here is the dirty little secret of the activists: they don’t really care that much for poor people in poor countries.
Joining Hands describes itself as “an initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program that fights the root causes of hunger by sparking the formation of networks in developing countries. These networks lead the struggle against hunger at a local level while working with PC(USA) presbyteries and congregations to address global hunger issues.” Hunger Program associate Valery Nodem hailed Joining Hands as “the new approach in the church to do mission.” With the rest of the Hunger Program, it is funded through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering.
The Rev. Alexa Smith, PCUSA staff associate for Joining Hands, characterized the initiative as an effort to shine light into the dark places of international commerce. Developing country decisions to enter free trade agreements and allow foreign investment are often made without consulting the people most directly affected, according to Smith. “Most of the decisions that were causing people problems were not public decisions,” she said. “They were decisions that were made in the shadows.” Smith asked her audience to imagine a poor farmer caught by surprise when “a bulldozer was moving toward your house to displace you because the government had leased the land you were living on to a corporation very cheaply to grow a monocrop for export.”
The Joining Hands associate saw such incidents as symptomatic of a global problem: “There are 1.5 billion people in more than 50 resource-rich countries who remain mired in poverty.” Although the resources are abundant, many of those countries have “very authoritarian governments” that appropriate the proceeds from foreign investment for themselves and their loyalists. “Most of the money is siphoned off at the upper level and never filters down for basic needs like infrastructure, health care, education, and housing,” Smith charged.
They doubtless think they do, but they in fact are motivated by something else: an hostility to capitalism and free markets.
There is no other sufficient way to explain their embrace of crackpot pseudoscience on certain issues:
Nodem was encouraged that people, such as the networks supported through Joining Hands, “are becoming more aware and they are starting to fight back” against the corporations. He counted rising numbers of “divestments or abandoned or postponed projects” as victories for the poor.These folks, like Marquette students who want the university to boycott Palermo’s Pizza, care more about feeling self-righteous than about actually helping those in need.
Nodem was particularly suspicious of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) developed by multinational corporations. He rejoiced to recount how Haitian farmers had rejected a gift of seeds from Monsanto. Nodem was also pleased to report that “more and more countries around the world have banned or put in place GMO restrictions.” In the United States, he hailed “the whole organic thing” that disdains fertilizers and pesticides.
As Alan F.H. Wisdom points out:
There is no reason to doubt the stories of abuse communicated through the Joining Hands program. In a fallen world, where authoritarian governments and other unjust structures leave many people powerless and vulnerable, it is not surprising that sinful individuals and institutions take advantage. Lack of transparency can make the problems worse.These clerical leftists are not well-meaning people who are just mistaken. They are rigid ideologues who are putting their anti-capitalist ideology ahead of the interests of poor people in the Third World.
Free trade may in some sense globalize the opportunities for exploitation. Yet at the same time free trade limits exploitation by undercutting the old local monopolies that used to hold all power. More open economies allow the poor and others to take the initiative in providing for their families. Some of them create their own jobs as entrepreneurs; others find employment with the very corporations that the PCUSA program habitually denounces. All of them benefit from the unprecedented abundance of food produced with the assistance of despised technologies such as fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic modification.
Indeed, this opening of new markets and new opportunities is the means by which hundreds of millions worldwide have emerged from poverty in recent decades. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that over the last 20 years the proportion of undernourished persons in the world has dropped from 19 percent to 12 percent. This is the story that the PCUSA’s Joining Hands initiative is not telling. Perhaps corporations are not always the bad guys.