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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 124 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 26, 2003

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Trading Ground:

Cancun and the Future of Fair Trade

Mustafa Zaman

The ripples of discontent over issues concerning liberalisation of trade finally formed into a surge that brought down the talks at Cancun. The Cancun ministerial agenda got stuck, as the 146 nations, the members of WTO, failed to agree on major issues.

At Cancun, all roads led to disagreement. And not even a last minute compromise deal that the WTO came up with could save the talks from derailment.

The five-day-long meeting failed in respect of getting the multilateral trade treaty forward. Perhaps it is too early to say that Globalistion has reached a bottleneck. But, the process has certainly taken a blow, and from the most unlikely parties-- the ountries of the Third World.

Although belated in response, the experts in Dhaka have expressed their concern about Bangladesh's inability to account for its own interest. They questioned the issues taken up by the convener of 49 LDC countries that Bangladesh played the role of at Cancun.

Withdrawing subsidies in agricultural sectors by the developing nations was sighted as one of the important issues which, if implemented, could put Bangladesh in a compromising position. As Bangladesh, a food-deficit country, is dependent upon the agro-products grown in the developed world. The issue of free movement of natural persons too would not have helped much the cause of our interest. The only valid position in order to save the garment industry and whatever little Bangladesh produces in other sectors would have been to press for ' special safeguard measures'. It is essential for our products to win easy access in the world market. But Bangladesh's agenda was not centred on this, although it was one of the points that figured in the agenda of the commerce minister.

Even if it were the focal point, it would not have meant much, as Zaed Bakht of Bangladesh Institute of Development observes. He says that unlike ACP (Africa, Caribbean, and the Pacific countries) the LDC was not as active at Cancun, during the meeting.

At Cancun the Bangladesh delegation has been divided into fifteen working groups, but according to a news paper report, had no meetings or discussions to carry out the agenda set in the Dhaka Declaration. The delegates complained that they recieved no briefings from the minister, nor were they assigned to perform any specific task.

Farhad Mazhar, development activist and managing director of UBINIG, a grass-roots NGO, has alluded to the lack of direction of the negotiations that Bangladesh is participating in."

When ACP, AU (African Union) were active in changing the drift, Bangladesh played the role of a tamed bystander. Many countries that polarised on the 'Singapore issue', had gained strong leverage in the talks. But Bangladesh seemed to have been under the pressure of the giant, US.

As for the talks going over the brink, the effect on our press and on the experts are somewhat mixed. The daily Prothom Alo calls it a triumph of the poor countries in the world. But the former secretary and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, M Anwar Hashim belives that it is through the WTO that “a positive new world order” can be built. He sees it as a setback, and hopes that both the poor and the rich countries would soon be able to forge an agenda that would be based on justice, equity and consensus.

But many are preg nant with hope that they never dared to treasure before the failure of the talks at Cancun.

The official declaration of the WTO came at a press conference in the evening of Sunday the 14th at Cancun, Mexico. And the crowd turned jubilant. While the anti-globalisation activists, and the pro-fair trade lobbyists rejoiced, the developing nations also proclaimed victory echoing the sentiment of trade unions, peasant platforms and other activists from the opposite pole of the WTO.

Yet many had their reservations. They reflected on the fact that with WTO's agenda at crossroad the world's already ailing economy will be in danger of getting worse. The British Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt proclaimed, “This is a huge setback. It is a blow to the Doha Development round, and it's a setback for the world economy, which very badly needed a boost to confidence.”

Many are apprehensive that with the question of agricultural subsidies unresolved, the farmers around the world are doomed to face the competition with the rich countries.

But one thing has been made lucidly clear that the rich countries were not ready to make concessions' to the poor. The other side of the coin is of more significance; the poor nations seem to have discovered their 'voice' at Cancun. The representatives of the developing countries proved to have understood their own interest and also found a way to flex a bit of muscle in order to stand their ground.

As for the failure of the talks, the Daily Star reports blamed it on the rigidity of the EU and the US, countries representing the rich nations. India, one of the nations that lobbied for withdrawal of subsidies in agriculture along with Brazil and China, declared that talks failed because the developed nations failed to gauge the poor countries' concerns in drafting a new multilateral trade agreement.

Although Oxfam's agenda was to push for pro-poor policies while acknowledging the WTO as a legitimate vehicle for the global trade, they decried, in the end, that the refusal of the EU and US to cede any ground to developing countries on agriculture-- and Europe's attempt to force a global investment and competition treaty on to the table-- had forced the poor countries to walk out.

But the delegates from the rich countries felt otherwise. The US trade representative said that the collapse was caused by “too many delegates pontificating than negotiating.” The remark clearly reveals how reluctant the developed nations still are in listening to the complaints and pondering over the programmes set by their weaker counterparts.

No one was sure about the outcome of Cancun ministerial before it reached a standoff, no one could predict this wholesale failure. Even when the news of impasse was pouring in, it was hard to believe that the poor of the world would be able sway the giants who steer the WTO.

When the rift manifested in all its teething composition at the last two days of the meeting, the activists for pro-poor and the anti-globalisation groups found a cause to celebrate. Many countries too could not hide their jubilation and heaved a sigh of relief.

Naomi Klein of 'The Nation' dubbed the ministerial meeting the “Five days of brinkmanship”. Though she echoes the sentiment of the pro-globalisation lobby and dreads a world economic slack without the WTO to make a difference. But she also admits that Cancun had been dominated by a struggle between the WTO's traditional powerbrokers, the EU and the US, and a new group of militant developing countries, flexing their negotiating muscles for the first time. Led by Brazil, India and China, they certainly have secured a stronger position in the running of world's trade affairs.

There was a bid to save the talks from going overboard. A 'compromise declaration' was drawn on Sunday, September 14. It was an attempt to assuage all the sides and bring the ministerial to a successful conclusion. The WTO was thinking of extending the meeting. But every effort to set it on proper footing again failed.

The least developing countries (LDC), African Union (AU) and block of African, Caribian and Pacific nations (ACPs), in a joint statement expressed utter dissatisfaction over the draft (the compromise declaration) on that very day. In fact no country was satisfied with it.

The WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell's word on the final day of the meeting sums it up well, he said, “ there is a consensus on one point that is on disagreement.”

Later some countries criticised the meeting chairman, Luis Ernesto Derbez, for pulling the plug too quickly as progress was reported on the thorny issue of massive EU and US subsidies to domestic farmers.

Mr Zoellick, the US trade representative, said that after the setback in Cancun, the US would redouble its efforts to reach bilateral trade deals with favoured nations. It only means that with or without WTO, the rich would carry on with their agenda. But there is a question mark that lately has appeared to mar their smooth treading. With poor nations realising, though belatedly, their own self-interest, the world trade may not be the monopoly of the rich anymore.

Alec Erwin, South Africa's trade minister, surmised recognising the new drift, "This is a change in the quality of negotiations between developing and developed countries."

Cancun can be seen as a lesson for the poor nations to “stand up for their right”, as Bob Marley, the pop sensation from the Caribbean, had once sung. Though, after the impasse, the Beatles got the upper hand, when activists were spotted singing Money Can't Buy the World in tune of their hit song “Can't Buy Me love” to mock the failure of me rich to bring the meeting in their favour.



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