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Art, Culture and the World Trade Organization

Where are we going?

Published: Jun 17, 2017

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In The Bahamas, there has been an ongoing discussion about lowering duty on art supplies and products in order to discourage the disenfranchisement of local artists by allowing cheap imitation art to be imported at a lower duty rate.

Free trade and membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is often discussed, but quickly it becomes clear that few people understand the complexity of the situation and regional governments have done little to help the public inform themselves. In fact, it would seem that up to now information has been intentionally opaque and even less has been shared than ought to have been. At the apex of talks about the WTO, the Ministry of Financial Services were leading all matters dealing with legislation and they had announced that an entire suite of laws would be forthcoming. What has happened since then?

The WTO agreement is in a number of parts, or sub-agreements, one being the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT); another being General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS); and yet another being The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which is governed in concert with WIPO, yet another UN organization. The Bahamas has been infamous, especially at violating the latter, with the buying and selling of knocks-offs, infringing on copyright laws and agreements, and disregarding the need to protect its indigenous knowledge. To say the least, government agencies and ministries have been so blatant about breaking laws and international agreements that they have, themselves, bought fake goods meant to have originated in The Bahamas but that are made of inferior material and incompetently to boot. Meanwhile, the businesses in the local economy that would have spent capital creating these goods have been undermined, as has been demonstrated in this column on other occasions.


WTO policies

As a part of the globalization trend— a trend to remove borders except on people from the global south-- goods, except those that are deemed to be threatening to market stability, and services may flow without heavy penalties. The WTO was created by the same parties that created such institutions as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund and The Inter-American Development Bank, in order to spread the joy of free trade, whose essential core concern is to remove all customs duties and policies that would act as artificial barriers to trade. In theory, the government of The Bahamas, for example, in its bid to join the WTO, should have removed all duties. Instead, many duties have remained and other taxes, like VAT, have been added. Again, the idea of free trade is that everything should flow according to the demands of the market. To achieve this goal, the WTO framework has two extremely fundamental pillars (or Articles); one is Article iii, National Treatment, and the other is most favored nation Ssatus. These principles are fundamental and they mean that, firstly, nations cannot discriminate against goods produced in other countries and, secondly, whatever concessions are granted to one nation, the trading partner shall be granted to all. We saw some of the fallout of the latter on the local level when Atlantis complained that Baha Mar was granted more favourable deals and concessions than they received. At the same time, The Bahamas has always been in favour of international trade over local empowerment whereby legislation, such as The Hotels Encouragement Act, has been put in place to favour international businesses by granting them hefty concessions. The WTO takes this to an all-new level and means that local businesses must compete with international businesses in an ‘open market.’ What this means for locally produced goods is troubling.

The GATT begins this process by removing duties, tariffs and quotas on goods coming into the country and (supposedly) goods leaving the country. The GATS takes this to another level by doing the same on services. TRIPS includes intellectual property, which includes copyright, trademarks, geographical indicators and patents, and so covers the great expanse of what we produce with our minds. It also challenges our ability to own our Indigenous Knowledge, which is an intricate and intimate part of who we are as Bahamians. This would include, for example, bush medicine and any organisms from the sea, which in turn means that whatever granny used to make babies better that grew outside in the bushes, and has miraculously survived the devastation of local development through unchecked bulldozing, is open to international exploitation. It also could mean that we will have to pay to use such ingredients in the future because they will be owned by transnational corporations and pharmaceuticals companies. Further, we are expected to open our borders to legal as well as natural persons, which means international businesses and real people who can come in and work ‘without’ controls being levied on them. Freeport has functioned like this for a very long time, though it continues to limp along without truly benefiting too many Bahamians.


Local legislation and public international law

The WTO requires that local legislation be in tune with its articles and policies. It also requires that all laws and regulations be harmonized, so that one law does not conflict with the spirit of another. It also requires that no laws that restrict free trade be implemented after signing on to GATT, GATS and TRIPS, for example and that these must be adopted at the local level. This means that local laws must be changed to work in concert with WTO laws yet nothing has been done publicly to meet this challenge. Whatever is being done to work with WTO demands has not filtered down to the people or the practitioners. This is a serious developmental flaw as it means that the people who are being affected by these laws and policies will be working in the dark. However, the government has been notorious for such disregard.


What does this mean for art and culture?

In the interim, when the government lowers import duties on art, they are really and truly working within the constraints of the WTO. However, they are also insisting that all art is the same. Given the idea behind non-discrimination, National Treatment and MFN, and the insistence on open borders, art that is produced in The Bahamas cannot be treated differently from other art, unless there is a carefully crafted policy that can work to ‘protect’ Bahamian art and culture. Obviously, though, the concept of protection goes completely against open markets and free trade. Bahamian artists and other artists working in the country have to compete against transnationally produced copies of their work, especially until the government has regulated the system. To date, the government has not created an environment that promotes and safeguards local creative industry and its production. In fact, countless are the woes of creatives that have had their products stolen and copied and then sold on the open market without them benefiting at all, as stated above. So, as we move into the next century, the government is removing barriers to trade, yet doing nothing about the minutiae that needs urgent attention and that will either allow the local creative industries to survive or thrive.

In 2017, as a nation that claims to be transitioning to ‘First World’ status, argued by many ministers in the former government, as long as they continue to benefit from the spoils of unregulated corruption, we are behind the crowd. In fact, we are at the back of the queue. Bahamian artists and designers, such as architects, fashion designers, software designers and others, are expected to work in an environment that opens the door to any and all forms of piracy and leaves the nation and the state vulnerable. Recognising nation limitations and working within those gaps and spaces is essential to growth. The government has refused to move from the prehistory of non-computerised offices, where one person may be educated enough to function at a decent professional level, and is trounced by workers who go out of their way to stop progress and development. Moreover, it is even more egregious when this is done by key figures, who wish to protect their interests and undo efforts to promote development.

There are good people who are ignored and/or barred from participation in the development of artistic expression and protection of cultural wealth but the government has seen it necessary to go to outsiders who are given enormous consultancy fees either because they receive kickbacks or because they argue that there are no Bahamians with any of the necessary skills. Also, they often contract private individuals to work in strengthening the infrastructure, but train no one else to work along with them or they continue to empower their cronies.

We are at a crucial point in our development; we have signed on to the WTO, which stipulates all these details of policy, yet we are doing nothing to meet them. We have talked about cultural industries and cultural tourism as if tourism were a cultural driver without ever buttressing the support for tangible and intangible culture.

To be sure, the country’s membership of the WTO means that it will not be “business as usual,” and that the system that Immanuel Wallerstein and Eduardo Galeano, for example, critique in “World Systems Theory” has won out and is re-empowering itself through gaining control of trade; even though the U.S., for example, has huge protections barriers to trade, we must remove ours because we have agreed to do so. All the while, the very country is suffering because of ill-thought-through plans and policies that undermine locals in favour of the old power system.

Let’s hope that working with UNESCO and the other UN systems to protect ourselves and our Indigenous Knowledge—that is our tangible as well as our intangible culture—can be fruitful to the nation and not just a few privileged members. We must move into the 21st Century and work to empower Bahamians and Bahamian production.



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