Search for "free trade" in any dictionary and you will find a variety of definitions promoting the global benefits of countries producing for export over producing for their own use.
What you will not find is the truth about what those definitions really mean. After reading between the lines, the question we should be asking is not, "What is free trade," but "For whom is it free?"
The answer to that question reveals a double standard in global politics and development where industrialized nations and transnational corporations repeatedly take advantage of human and natural resources in developing countries to expand their power and wealth. Civil society and other movements that protest this injustice rise up in opposition, only to be suffocated, sometimes violently, and otherwise discredited through the mainstream media.
Today, Colombia continues to execute a costly campaign for approval of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and to increase its profits in the market for bio-fuels. Over 18,000 sugarcane workers and additional supporters continue to hold demonstrations for improved labor conditions, but are ignored by both the Colombian and U.S. governments. Many of the workers are indigenous and Afro-Colombian, and are forced to work with inhumane pay and in deplorable conditions that the Colombian government has repeatedly failed to address. Employers of the sugarcane workers regularly disregard basic employee rights, and fail to pay health and retirement benefits.
Not surprisingly, we see the same failure of free trade policies in Africa. AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, was signed in 2000 and renewed in 2002. It offers preferred access to the U.S. market to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that engage in liberal trade, but the only African countries that truly benefit from this arrangement are the ones rich in oil resources.
Agreements like AGOA have led to more U.S. exports entering African countries than African imports are allowed in the U.S. What we see, yet again, are U.S. foreign policies that put the interests of trade over the basic human rights of the people living on the African continent and the Diaspora.
The U.S. loudly claims that free trade actually benefits those in other countries, but in reality we see no notable improvements in worker conditions and protection in the AGOA countries.
Throughout the world, the terms and exceptions of free trade are set by governments and the private sector and are driven by profit-interest versus human interest. In too many places, that narrow focus means worker exploitation, food insecurity, increased migration, and tyranny over democracy.
If you look back to that "free trade" dictionary definition, you will likely find a lot of big words and confusing explanations. I wish people were more concerned with trade being fair than meeting some obscure standard of "free."
Real fairness is respecting the culture and economy of local people. Real fairness means genuinely caring about their health and welfare. I have seen first-hand the effects of "free trade" in several countries, and it is not the fairy tale that the mainstream politicians would have us believe. I have seen men, women and children working 20 hours a day in deplorable conditions to keep up with the influx of foreign goods. I have seen farmers who used to trade corn for clothes struggle because they do not have the cash to participate in the new "free" economy.
The current financial crisis has turned free market ideology on its head. As we wade through fears of a recession, massive job loss, and home foreclosures, it is time to accept that the neo-liberal economic policies of the past, which have been driven by the interests of a select few, have done nothing but accelerate inequality and instability throughout our global community. Until we learn from our mistakes and accept that fair trade, human rights and human security go hand in hand, this devastating cycle will continue.
Nicole C. Lee is the Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum.