WORLD TRADE ORGANISATION

What it is:
An international organisation set up in 1995 to monitor trade and resolve trade disputes. In 2005 it had 148 member states. Its headquarters are in Geneva, and it holds a conference about every two years (though talks go on at other times as well). The WTO's function is to hold negotiations to expand and speed up globalisation by encouraging free trade.

What it means:  The WTO grew out of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), but unlike GATT (a kind of treaty) it is an official organisation. The WTO has legal powers. It uses them against member countries thought to be impeding free trade - even if they are doing so because free trade is affecting the environment, or human rights, or public health, or anything else one would expect a humane international organisation to take care of. Canada asked the WTO to force Europe to import its asbestos (known to cause cancer). The European Commission cut back plans to test potentially dangerous chemicals in domestic products, under pressure from the vast chemical industry and the American, British, French and German governments (members of the WTO): trade mattered more. The WTO's 'national treatment clause' means that no country can discriminate against foreign products - and the implication of that is that national governments can't stick to ethical trade policies (if they have them) and, for example, refuse to import products made by child labour. This not-so-free trade is for the benefit only of the trader, big business and banks. There are also consumers in every country who don't think, or even care, about the way the goods they buy have been produced and traded and into whose pockets the money has gone. Yet by its 10th birthday the WTO had already faced a lot of publicised protest, and its fifth conference (in 2003) had collapsed because of determined resistance from its poorer members. They objected, with reason, to the way draft agreements ignored their opinions on key issues that affected the future of their countries.

Think about it: Trade, like money, is used as a means of exerting power. In 1919 Germany was forced into debt because of demands that it pay reparations for its part in the First World War. They amounted to 3 years of Germany's national income. In addition, Germany was prevented from expanding its exports - the only way it could raise money to pay its debts. This kind of vengeful unreasonableness is not uncommon in business, or anywhere else where profit is the aim. We probably have to accept that self-interest drives most people, but we can at least encourage what is called 'enlightened' self-interest. This means taking a longer view. What's the point of short-term profit if it creates a situation in which later there's little or none? Maybe decisions about world trade should not, after all, be left to the traders? Maybe more powerful individuals or states should accept they won't get everything they want? Maybe the fate of the people who grow or make what is traded is as important as the fate of the people who buy and use it, and maybe they should get to know a bit more about each other.