A Pact to Guide Global Investing Promises Jobs - but at What Cost?

Critics say a treaty, due to be signed in April, has the same flaws NAFTA has.

It is a pioneering treaty that will boost foreign investment worldwide and bring new jobs, higher wages, and greater prosperity in its wake.

It is a disastrous surrender to giant corporations, leaving governments and citizens powerless to control the activities of multinationals.

These are the two radically opposing views of a document few people have actually seen, but which will set legally binding rules for companies around the world who invest across borders.

A cornerstone of the 21st-century world economy, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) will be "the constitution for a single global economy," in the words of Renato Ruggiero, head of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization.

The MAI is up for signature in April at the annual meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the "rich man's club" of 29 industrialized nations.

But after three years of quiet negotiations in the OECD, the treaty has come under increasingly vocal attack by citizens' groups worldwide, who say it will give corporations the right to ride roughshod over local legislation.

"The balance of power between corporations and government will be forever altered," warned a recent statement by the International Forum on Globalization, a San Francisco-based coalition of environmental, citizens' rights, and other activists. "In effect, corporations will govern. Let's call it 'NAFTA on steroids.' "

Foreign investment - whether it's a Japanese Nissan auto plant in the United States, or an American Compaq computer assembly line in Taiwan - is worth over $8 trillion, and it's going up by $350 billion a year. OECD officials say the planned accord will simply level the playing field for foreign investors, ensuring that governments treat them on an equal footing with domestic companies.

Investing afar can be risky

Investing abroad is riskier than it is close to home. The investor is less familiar with local languages, customs, and laws, and more worried about being bilked. The MAI would encourage more foreign investment by offering guarantees and protection against some of the risks.

But it would also strip national and local governments of some of their authority. Under MAI rules, for example, an American city council would not be allowed to set standards for a foreign corporation that was bidding on a contract. The municipality could not insist that the company hire a certain percentage of its workers from the local community or ask that it leave some profits in the country.

That is why protesters from Maryland to Malaysia, linked and organized through the Internet, have been ringing alarm bells about the implications of the MAI. The critics range from community activists in the US, who say the accord would render local governments helpless in the face of giant corporations, to French cinema directors and actors who worry that Hollywood will swamp them if laws that favor local productions are outlawed.

Frans Engering, the Dutch chairman of the OECD negotiating group, has sought to reassure MAI opponents that the treaty would not allow foreign investors to weaken local laws on environmental protection or labor safety, as has been alleged.

Last week, at the end of the last high-level negotiations before April's planned signing session, Mr. Engering foresaw that the final accord would "bind governments, not allowing them to deviate from their social and environmental policies so as to be more competitive in attracting foreign investment."

Speaking at the OECD headquarters here, he also tried to allay European concerns that the MAI would forbid governments to offer local film and TV companies subsidies that help keep them afloat and making varied productions in the face of Hollywood's crushing competition.

The new treaty, he said, would keep the "cultural exception" that France and other countries had won for themselves in controversial trade negotiations in 1993 to protect their cultural industries.This allows governments to opt out of certain clauses of the treaty, exempting themselves from its obligations.

Indeed, the 29 countries negotiating the agreement have so far raised nearly 1,000 "reservations" - areas over which governments want to retain their authority despite the treaty's general goal of reducing their freedom to regulate foreign investors.

Everyone asks exceptions

Every country wants to be able to break the MAI rules if national security is at stake; some governments want to be able to protect a certain industry against foreign ownership; others want to be able to set performance requirements for investors, such as that they must hire a certain number of local people or reinvest some profits in a community.

"The whole result of MAI must be liberalizing, a step forward, but exceptions will have to be allowed," acknowledged the OECD's Engering after last week's talks here.

Ironically, it is the US, the country that initially pushed hardest for the MAI, that now appears to pose the biggest hurdle to its enactment. Europe is insisting that any accord guaranteeing equal treatment for investors must outlaw efforts by one country to impose its own laws on other nations and companies, such as the controversial 1996 Helms-Burton act in the US that seeks to punish foreign companies doing business in Cuba.

Until the US annuls such legislation - not a likely prospect in the near term - its OECD partners will not sign the MAI.

"We can bring quite enormous progress to the ministers" when they meet at the end of April, says Engering, "but I don't exactly know whether we'll be able to solve all the problems by then."

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