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Humanitarians split on Obama’s trade agenda: Trans Pacific Partnership

The debate is heating up on how to make trade work to reduce, rather than exacerbate, poverty and inequity. Flickr,

Leading humanitarian organizations like the ONE Campaign and Oxfam appear to strongly disagree on whether to support the Obama Administration’s push to ‘fast-track’ an international trade agreement – and if its impact on the global fight against poverty and inequity will do more harm than good.

TPP countries mapThe proposed trade pact, called the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), has not yet been made public (except for sections mostly revealed by Wikileaks). The TPP would be the world’s biggest ‘free trade’ agreement encompassing some 40 percent of the global economy.

Obama has asked Congress to give him ‘fast track’ authority to approve the TPP – which would only allow for the ‘people’s branch’ of government to vote yes or no, without opportunity for debate or amendment. Despite the arguably undemocratic nature of such a process, many supporters of the deal say this is necessary because, well, you know how Congress can be.

A few weeks ago, the ONE Campaign published a letter it and some other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) signed entitled the NGO Statement on Trade and Poverty. The letter, promoted by the Business Council for Global Development, makes no specific mention of the TPP or the Obama Administration’s push for fast-track up-down approval.

But emails accompanying the letter – circulated without any position taken by the umbrella group Interaction to its members – attached a TPP fact sheet from the US Trade Representative’s office and the letter from the Business Council urged groups to sign because of the call in Congress for fast-track approval.

Ritu Sharma, formerly president and co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, was hired by the Business Council to promote the NGO statement to members of Interaction. Sharma said the letter was not intended to show support for any specific piece of legislation but was just a statement in general support of the Administration’s overall trade agenda.

“The groups were expressing their belief that President Obama’s trade agenda has an important part to play in the work to end poverty and hunger,” Sharma wrote in an email to Humanosphere. “The statement makes clear that trade done right and as part of a broader strategy that includes aid can generate inclusive economic growth and can lift populations that are typically marginalized, such as women and minorities.”

David Kortava, spokesman for the ONE Campaign, also emphasized that the letter was not intended to show support for the TPP or fast-tracking it. About half the signatories to the letter replied to Humanosphere’s request for clarification, all saying they were not supporting any specific legislation or trade pact.

“That’s funny,” responded Judit Rius, head of the access to essential medicine campaign in the U.S. for Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders). MSF opposes provisions in the TPP (the ones they know about anyway) that the organization believes will give the drug industry greater patent protections in a manner that will increase costs, discourage generics and reduce access to medications among the poor.

“It’s not clear to me what they are even saying,” Rius said. Since almost everyone views the phrase ‘Obama’s trade agenda’ to be synonymous with fast-track passage of the TPP, she said it is confusing to see this NGO Statement letter expressing support for the agenda while claiming to take no position on its primary issue.

A few weeks after the first, vaguely worded NGO Statement was published, Oxfam America asked InterAction to circulate an apparent counter-point letter to Congress specifically opposing fast-tracking the TPP. It was made public last week:

“As humanitarian, human rights and faith-based organizations, we believe that trade can be a mechanism to reduce poverty and promote development only if the rules of trade serve to address the needs of the most vulnerable,” the letter began.

“To this end, broad-based development should be a core objective of US trade policy. Yet the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) fails this test, and the recently introduced Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill would further perpetuate this problem.”

Stephanie Burgos, Oxfam’s director of its economic justice program and the one who crafted this letter to Congress signed by more than a dozen human rights, anti-poverty and faith-based organizations, didn’t want to ‘speculate’ on what the NGO Statement put forward by ONE and Sharma was intended to accomplish.

“It just came out at a time when there is a huge debate about the TPP and fast-track authority,” Burgos said. “That’s why we, and other groups, felt it was important to put out a statement specifically focused on the TPP … and what we think is wrong with it.”

In a nutshell, Burgos said, the TPP perpetuates an approach to trade that is focused mostly on achieving broad economic gains and reducing restraints on business. She said that approach has not been shown to do much for the poor worldwide.

Trade agreements today, Burgos said, need to have reducing inequity and poverty at their core – not as hoped-for side effects of trade. Here is Oxfam’s press release accompanying the letter.

Everyone in this debate agrees that improving trade and global commerce can help fight poverty in poor countries, if done right. How to do it right is the crux of what is becoming an increasingly fierce debate, for the anti-poverty crowd and perhaps for the general public.

After years of being negotiated behind the scenes to little public notice, concerns about the impact of the TPP – on both the left and the right – have recently exploded to the point where it is even showing up as a chit in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Critics contend the increasing controversy and rising opposition across the political spectrum to the TPP is evidence that people have awakened to the potential downside of these kind of global ‘free trade’ agreements, as with NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement).

The fact that labor unions and libertarians equally dislike the TPP could be taken as a sign of the deal having struck the right balance, the art of compromise. Or maybe the stubborn remnants of the Tea Party and Occupy movements will, as some once predicted, find common ground in opposing what some are now calling Obamatrade.

Hard to say, since most of the details still remain undisclosed and the typical bipartisan dividing lines that delineate what position a liberal or conservative should take appear woefully confused when it comes to the TPP.

The one conclusion that can be drawn from these rifts developing across the political spectrum and among communities, like the humanitarian crowd, that normally try to keep their disputes behind the scenes, is that these once-neglected international trade negotiations are now very much on the radar screen.

Editor’s note: If you’ve read this far, here is a funny – admittedly anti-TPP – video for your amusement:


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.