WTO's Mexico round: Developing countries should put up a bold show
It will perhaps be another round of unequal fight at the forth-coming WTO Round at Cancan, Mexico, between the most powerful developed nations, comprising just one fourth of the total WTO (World Trade Organisation) membership of some 146, and the poor developing countries which make up three-quarters of the total membership, covering about 85 per cent of the world population. It is not a new phenomenon for the poor developing countries, including some 45 LDCs (Least Developed Countries, of which Bangladesh is one) in their long-drawn struggle against 'hard rocks' to get their due share in global trade and commerce, but it has been a dismal failure for them.
During the last five decades or so, since the establishment of a UN related body, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in 1948, later replaced by the WTO in 1995, as the only international trade body under the shadow of the UN for over-seeing and regulating global trade, there has been no lessening in the difficulties and obstacles faced by the poor nations to improve their industrial production, expansion of their commerce and trade as equal partners of the rich nations. Proverbially speaking, the rich countries have been enjoying their 'ice' in summer, while the poor countries getting their 'due share' of 'ice' in winter only.
The past experiences have shown how the developed countries, call it First World, had been successful to curry favour for themselves at the cost of the poor developing countries, the Third World. WTO had held several 'rounds' of global trade talks such as, 'Kennedy Round', 'Tokyo Round,' 'Uruguay Round' and the last one 'Doha Round', for trade liberalisation but the benefits of such trade talks had been harvested mostly by the First World countries, leaving a few 'bones' for the 'underdogs' (Third World) as 'charity', perhaps for supporting their trade proposals en masse. But "a bone to the dog is not charity, charity is the bone shared with the dog." Will the First World ever learn it?
WTO chief's optimism
However, new hopes had been raised by the WTO Director-General, Supachai, former trade Minister of Thailand, while addressing an international trade conference held earlier this year in Hydrabad, India, when he expressed his optimism that "a successful round of (WTO) ministerial talks to deepen free world trade is possible in Mexico scheduled for September this year," despite "missed deadlines" in completing objectives set at Doha Round in 2001. He, however, cautioned saying that "we need to make amends and compensate for the missing deadlines" of Doha Round. Thus the up-coming Mexico Round of WTO is going to be held in the background of unfinished agenda set at Doha in 2001, following the WTO Seattle fiasco in 1999. The Doha agenda remained unfinished because of the 'traditional' 'difference of opinion' between the First World and Third World, the attitude of the former being "head I win, tail you lose."
The cancerous differences now seem to be spreading over wider areas, rather than getting reduced, as they had shown more vehemently when America opposed recently a provision of giving the poor nations access to cheap medicines for serious diseases, like AIDS, TB and malaria. This time the 'differences' were on the question of the 'definition' of seriousness of the diseases, when the WTO member countries, including the developed countries belonging to EU, tried in December last to reach an agreement to relax patent rules so that the poor countries could import cheap generic copies, or 'copy cats' of patented medicines. But America took a stand to block it. Hence there is a growing concern that the up-coming WTO trade talks, may end in another Seattle type fiasco unless the developed countries abandon their traditional 'war-path' and make a common cause with the developing countries.
Light at end of tunnel?
However, in the midst of currents and cross-currents of hopes and frustrations, about reaching another WTO trade accord by the end of next year (2004), another spate of fresh hopes have been raised both by the WTO Director General and the US Trade Representative Robert Zoellic, after attainting a ministerial meeting of the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation for Development), held in Paris recently. While the WTO chief told newsmen that the 'Doha Round' of trade negotiations on a new WTO round accord were "on course to conclude next year as planned", the US Trade Representative opined that he was "more optimistic" that a new trade accord could be reached by the end of 2004, as he had gathered from the recent Paris meeting of trade negotiators. But facts are always stranger then fictions. The poor developing countries had heard such pious wishes and sermons many times in the past several decades. But these have never been fulfilled.
Because fulfilment of such high hopes and tall talks depends to a great extent on the attitude and policy of the developed countries, particularly America, regarding so many 'its' and 'buts' planted by them deliberately to block the negotiations for a settlement of core issues, like agricultural products, and supply of cheap generic copies or 'copy cats' of patented medicines to the poor countries, etc.
It may be mentioned here that the trade negotiators missed a deadline in March this year to strike a deal on agricultural trade, the main bone of contention being the high rate of subsidies provided by the developed countries to their farmers which ultimately goes against the interests of the poor developing countries. That is why they have been opposing such subsidies consistently.
Complaints against high subsides
Meanwhile, some moves have been initiated by the developing countries as well as EU countries in the WTO against injustices caused by some unethical subsidies to achieve their selfish ends. Four African cotton producing countries, namely, Chad, Mali, Benin and Burkina Faso, have recently decided to file complaints to the WTO against America and the EU for granting high subsidies to their cotton farmers. According to an estimate, America, a major cotton producer and exporter, provided in 2002 to its cotton farmers 3.9 billion-dollar subsidies, which is said to be three times of the amount of annual US economic aid to the African countries!
The EU had already lodged complaints with WTO against America's decision to raise tariff wall against imports from EU by 100 per cent, as a retaliatory measure against EU's decision to import bananas from the Caribbean countries, known as 'banana republics', instead of from USA. WTO has come down on America with a heavy hand asking it to pay compensation to the EU for the loss sustained by it because of the high tariffs.
There has been another encouraging development. WTO, in its latest ruling on "tax breaks" for US exporters, had authorised EU to go ahead for a record from billion US dollars in trade sanctions against America, which is reported to have agreed to comply with the WTO ruling.
So America should learn some lessons from such moves in order to achieve proper globalisation of trade.
The developed countries, particularly America, should have got the 'message' much earlier from the Seattle fiasco (1999) when the developing countries threatened not to sign any trade deals unless they were involved in the decision-making process. This seems to be the core issue now, raised earlier by Supachai himself prior to his assumption of duties as DG from his power-sharing predecessor Mike Moor, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, on the eve of 'Doha Round' in 2001. Mr Supachai then strongly pleaded for giving the developing countries "a-longed-for-voice" at the top table of the global commerce to ensure them a place along side the West and Japan. But the question is: Will Supachai be able to bring about such a change by breaking through the stumbling block of the vested interests? Perhaps it depends more on the strength and unity of the Third World countries to snatch their legitimate rights in regulating global trade along side the First World.
Mahathir hits the right chord
In conclusion, I would like to draw attention to the recent statement by that most outspoken Asian leader, Dr Mahathir Mohammad, Prime Minister of Malaysia, who told a business seminar held in Kualampur recently that the developing countries should "keep up their fight for fairer global trade," and also advised the rich countries to help them grow. He criticised, what he called, the unfair trading environment in which the rich and the poor countries are bumped together "without rules and regulations." Mahathir further opined that "cities don't compete with villages, nor adult athletes with children." Referring to the West's much-orchestrated rule-based trading under WTO. Mahathir rightly pointed out that there was still no fair competition, as "rules were skewed in favour of rich and big corporations."
Therefore, to achieve a good amount of share of the 'ice' for the Third World countries in summer, and not in winter, they would have to continue their fight against injustices perpetrated by the rich nations who, as dominating force, have practically turned the WTO into a "Western Club" to thrust their views on the Third World countries, so far compelling them to carry the Whiteman's burden. Time has now come to get rid of this burden and take the lead to find a brighter future for them. The world would be waiting cross-fingered for the outcome of the WTO Mexico Round. Ultimately, there would have to be 'equal partness' in the interest of both the parties.
A M M Shahabuddin is a retired UN official.