Remembering Martin Khor, Champion of Economic Equality and Just Globalisation

He stood tall. His contributions in protecting the development interests of the Global South are unparalleled.

The stakes were very high.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) was deliberating, and if I am not mistaken this was sometime in July 2008, on the extent to which agricultural products could be covered under Special Safeguard Measures (SSM). While big players wanted to limit the number of products on which tariffs could be imposed at a time of surge in farm imports, India wanted more policy space to apply SSM, which means wanted more products to be covered.

In other words, India’s effort ostensibly was to protect the loss in farm livelihoods that was expected at a time when a flood in cheaper imports could bring about a crash in domestic prices for farmers and thereby result in a loss of livelihood.

The talks in Geneva hinged on a clearly visible imbalance, with big players expected to get through. Knowing the disastrous implications in store, it was at that crucial juncture that I organised a one day conference of farmer leaders in New Delhi.

What made this conference significant was that it was for the first time that almost 50 farmer leaders from all over the country, cutting across political as well as ideological affiliations, had assembled on one platform.

And secondly, after a day of intense brainstorming, interspersed with angry reactions from some of the farmer leaders present, the resolution that was issued, signed by each of the farmer leaders, representing the 600-million strong farming community, is believed to have tilted the balance at the Geneva negotiations.

A day later, I received an email from Martin Khor, who was then leading the Third World Network (TWN) team at Geneva, keeping a close eye on every happening.

Complimenting me for organising the farmers meeting, he said, in as many words, that the resolution from Indian farmer leaders had thrown the big boys of international trade at the SSM negotiations on the back foot. He then spoke to me and, in his own inimitable style, explained how the New Delhi statement from farmer leaders would turn out to be a saviour for farming communities throughout the developing world.

What Martin had hinted turned out to be true. The SSM talks collapsed eventually.

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Martin (1951-2020) passed away peacefully at Penang in Malaysia on April 1.

In his death, the world has lost one of the biggest champions of economic equality, social justice and just globalisation. He was on the forefront of a continuous battle against the hegemony of transnational corporations, and how the international laws and treaties were being suitably designed to circumvent their unfettered dominance across the developing economies. With his immaculate penchant for minute details, and his deep understanding of the geo-political dimensions, the insights he provided to activists and negotiators alike was certainly instrumental in influencing the negotiations.

Like hundreds of researchers and trade analysts from across the globe, I too learnt a lot from his analytical grip over trade negotiations. I would look eagerly every week in the SUNS Monitor for his reports and unique analysis of events as they took place.

The quarterly Third World Resurgence magazine too came in handy to follow the developments in international trade, multilateral investment, climate change as well as in various related aspects of the globalisation process. He stood, and stood tall, for protecting the development interests of the Global South and in a lot many ways I think his contribution, although the developing world may fail to acknowledge, remains unparalleled.

Later in 2009 he was appointed the Executive Director of the South Centre in Geneva, a position that was earlier held by Manmohan Singh. There again, his sharp analysis came in handy for developing countries that were framing their trade arguments.

I met Martin for the first time at Penang in 1984 when the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), a formidable research and advocacy platform for development issues, invited me along with Claude Alvares and Sharad Joshi from India to attend a conference which led to the formation of Third World Network. Not much was known about him at that time. He was a simple affable guy always greeting everyone with a smile.

The Uruguay Round of negotiations which lead to the formation of the WTO catapulted him to prominence. It was during those days that I was tracking the global trade negotiations especially in the context of food, agriculture, biodiversity and intellectual property rights and that gave us ample opportunities to meet and interact.

In many of my trips to Geneva, and sometimes at the WTO Ministerial Summits, it was always an added bonus to sit and chat with Martin. One thing that emerged every time we spoke was that he always stood for protecting the rights of the poor, and was a friend to farmers.

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I particularly remember when a prominent NGO invited me to be part of a group of WTO Ambassadors and negotiators who were being taken to visit the farming communities in and around the Black forest region of Germany.

Before I embarked on the travel, and, knowing that I was among only a couple of civil society representatives from the developing world, I spoke to Martin to know a little bit more about the background of the accompanying WTO negotiators, where they came from and who I should be spending more time during numerous opportunities for informal interactions that the visit would certainly throw up. I must acknowledge that was very helpful in sharpening my understanding.

Since the visit was planned for the rural areas, I also got a peep into how the EU’s massive agricultural subsidies were being disbursed.

The passing away of Martin Khor into history is a great personal loss. He was in true sense a philosopher, friend and guide. The challenge now is to continue his legacy.

Goodbye, my friend.

Devinder Sharma is an expert on Indian agriculture.