Friday, January 2, 2009

Protecting Minorities

Multinationals will spend a lot more money defending themselves against people they have exploited than they will in granting their workers better conditions or compensating victims of their greed. Remember Union-Carbide in Bhopal, India? Huge amounts of money were spent on defence and publicity, very small amounts on compensation. In the end, they denied responsibility for the thousands of deaths and the tens of thousands of people affected.

Many people are involved in the production of branded pharmaceuticals, foods, machinery, computers, clothing and various other things. But only a minority reap the benefits of intellectual property. In fact, it is mainly wealthy people and multinationals in rich countries who benefit from international intellectual property (IP) laws. The many people involved in their production are usually less well off and usually from developing countries.

So when you see an article called 'Rapid Rise In African Anti-Counterfeiting Efforts Led By Developed Nations', you might think, 'great, we consumers are going to be protected from people who produce fake drugs, fake brand name products, etc'. Using words like 'fear' and 'threat' and listing the beneficiaries of their efforts as hospital patients, pharmacists and farmers, perhaps we are suppose to think that they are doing it for us.

Are we supposed to breathe a sigh of relief and thank them for protecting us, for being the true guardian angels of enlightened self interest? Make no mistake, multinationals are protecting no one but themselves.

Fake pills and other products can kill people, true. But so-called legitimate products and services can also kill. Think of baby milk formula products and the much publicised Roundup pesticide, privatised water companies, extractive industries operating in countries where regulation is conveniently lax and many others.

The question is, why is it OK to compromise the health and safety of people if you are a multinational or a powerful corporation, but not if you are a 'criminal' operation, manufacturing counterfeit goods? I can see why the latter could be a crime, but I can't see why the former is legitimate.

More importantly, it seems to me that the latter is a product of the former. If it is possible to make enormous amounts of money to produce something at low cost and sell it for lots of money because of its brand name, I can see the attraction of getting in on the act. It is, in part, because such huge amounts of money can be made that it is worth while making fake versions of products.

There is a difference, of course, between fake drugs and generic drugs. It is not a crime to produce generic drugs, in certain circumstances. But wouldn't it be convenient if a bill, proposed in the Kenyan Parliament, were to fail to distinguish between fake drugs and generic drugs?

However, my argument is that the process of increasing profits every year through selling brands gives rise to the 'crime' of copying those products and selling them at lower cost. There may be less incentive to produce generic versions because the costs involved could be similar to, perhaps higher than those faced by multinationals, yet the profits would be lower. But producing generic versions is often worthwhile and one can readily buy, say, sports shoes with a brand name and/or logo similar to well known ones. The customer gets the shoes at an affordable price, but this can be a crime in many cases.

I have little sympathy for those who produce ridiculously overpriced goods on the grounds that they are of a particular brand. That still doesn’t mean that I would condone those who produce fake malaria drugs which, aside from resulting in deaths, also build up resistance to the active ingredient. But I would also condemn the producers of drugs who keep the price high because they know the product is going to be paid for by donor money, that there is no real 'market' that is controlling the prices.

The kind of drugs I'm talking about are those for diseases that only or mainly affect those in developing countries. Anti retroviral (ARVs) are a particular example, used for those suffering from Aids. There are now generic versions of ARVs but some Western countries spend most of their ‘aid’ money on branded versions. After all, they are produced in Western countries, so it's a convenient way of spending money at home while pretending that it is foreign aid.

In reality, this is a de facto subsidy for Western pharmaceutical industries; a subsidy being something the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the EU, the US and various other Western interests have spent years claiming is a barrier to free trade.

Similar remarks apply to condoms supplied by donors, despite the fact that condoms could be bought by donors in the recipient countries. Condom producers in recipient countries then find it hard to compete against the 'free' ones from America, Europe, China and other countries. These processes also increase dependency, but maybe that's the intention.

Fake drugs can kill people, but so can fake aid. If I really thought these defenders of intellectual property were looking out for the rights of people in developing countries, I'd be in favour. So I find it especially repulsive that these defenders talk about 'the wellbeing of people'; who are they trying to fool?

They go on to talk about corruption in developing countries. I guess it is not considered corrupt to skew international intellectual property law so that it exploits the many for the benefit of the few. It's not corrupt, but it is still exploitation.

Developing countries are not just big markets, they are populated by the majority of people on the planet. If a large percentage of products sold in African countries are fake, this could be because little alternative remains. People just can't afford to buy the branded version of many things. What do the producers of branded products expect them to do?

In a sense, the ‘market’, so beloved by the West, actually gives rise to the production of goods that people can afford, be they generic or fake. At best, the price of ARVs is determined by the Western market, in conjunction with punitive intellectual property laws (punitive for the buyer, that is). Rather than allowing a price to be determined by any market in the majority world, pharmaceutical companies only have to lobby their democratically elected friends to ensure that money for aid and development is spent on them.

If the protectors of intellectual property need to, as is claimed, 'educate people' about the dangers of counterfeiting, whether it's in agrochemicals, medicines or anything else, perhaps they would also care to 'educate people' about how multinationals can justify international agreements that seem merely to protect their own narrow interests. I'd certainly like to know.


No comments: