Globalization trades on the world's poor

March 6, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 310-322

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is a book replete with footnotes referring to previous Church documents. That's the way it should be. As a compendium, the book pulls together relevant Church statements and sorts them by topic.

But when we get to this little section on work and globalization, the footnotes dry up. The Compendium's authors struggle here with a topic that is, in some ways, too new for the Church to have formulated a detailed response. The text of the Compendium, never stirring reading, in this section becomes turgid. It has the feel of a compromise document written by social scientists in prose calculated to baffle rather than enlighten.

Those who were in that farmer's field north of Edmonton in September 1984 when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass know that the Church has not been silent on globalization. They also know how stirring papal social teaching on this topic can be.


The pope compared the last judgment story in Matthew's Gospel with today's "increasingly wealthier North and the increasingly poorer South."

His words thundered out across the field as he said, "in the light of Christ's words, the poor South will judge the rich North. And the poor people and poor nations - poor in different ways, not only lacking food, but also deprived of freedom and other human rights - will judge those people who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others."

Corporations have put a lock on the bounty of the world, dividing the global peoples into the haves and the have-nots.

– Design Pics photo

Corporations have put a lock on the bounty of the world, dividing the global peoples into the haves and the have-nots.

Pope John Paul spoke in the days before the latest free trade pacts, before the World Trade Organization, before we used the word "globalization." But the words he spoke have even greater relevance in light of the developments of the last 22 years. The main result of globalization has been to give powerful corporations unrestricted access to markets, cheap resources and cheap labour.

The world's largest multinational corporations have more than 30 per cent of the world's total economic output. This concentration of economic power means that leading corporations are able to dictate to national governments to a much greater extent than ever before.

Prior to NAFTA, for example, Mexico was self-sufficient in maize. But thanks to a flood of heavily subsidized corn from the United States, it is now the world's third largest corn importer.

Thousands of Mexican farmers have been driven off the land. Those who remain are under constant pressure to produce more and more corn at lower and lower prices. Those who have left the land find themselves unemployed or working at low-wage maquiladoras (assembly plants) near the U.S. border.

Meanwhile, manufacturers of products from clothes to cars have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers in North America to create low-wage, non-union factories in developing nations.

If the labour standards of the International Labour Organization were implemented around the world and the "structural adjustment" programs of the World Trade Organization were abolished, we would have a much fairer world. The problem is that the WTO has the power to force nations to implement its programs while the ILO is toothless.

Pope John Paul spoke often of the globalization of solidarity. It's a vague term, but it includes principles such as enough work for all, better working conditions, and a widespread desire to make trade a series of win-win transactions.


In his message for the 2000 World Day of Peace, the pope said that globalization offers opportunities to enable humanity to become a single family. "For this to happen, a complete change of perspective will be needed: It is no longer the well being of any one political, racial or cultural community that must prevail, but rather the good of humanity as a whole," he said.

It will take more than a change of perspective, however. In olden days, company shareholders held their shares for long periods and often had a genuine interest in both the economic and the human development of the companies they owned.

Today, as the Compendium notes, "Property is ever further removed and often indifferent to the social effects of the decisions made" (n. 310). Billions of dollars worth of transactions are made daily in the world's stock markets, all aimed at moving money quickly from yesterday's hot stock to tomorrow's great opportunity. Human concerns get little attention.

Some nations, such as Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela, are opting out of globalization. And while their old-style nationalism has serious weaknesses of its own, the people of those countries are sending a message: Globalized trade is only helping a small minority in developing nations. To develop a world economy that is sustainable, we need to find ways to make Pope John Paul's globalization of solidarity a reality.