Politics of Poverty

The WTO tries to prove it is relevant, but for whom?

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4 reasons the Bali package won’t help developing countries

Romain Benicchio is a Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam International.

Photo: Andy Aitchison / Oxfam
Photo: Andy Aitchison / Oxfam

For the first time this century, Oxfam will not be attending this week’s World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Bali. We decided that there just was not enough on the table to merit the travel and expense. It seemed the meeting might not deliver anything. But, after weeks of an intense negotiating process and a few days of uncertainty, it finally seems that trade ministers will actually negotiate something during a WTO Ministerial for the first time since 2005, trying to close in on a “Bali package.”

The problem is, despite being labelled as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” the package on the table is rather meaningless from a development point of view. The reality is sobering for our generation for four reasons:

(1)    Negotiators had the chance to start rebalancing trade rules on agriculture by allowing developing countries to support public stockholding for food security purpose. Despite having benefitted from loopholes in trade rules on agriculture for decades, developed countries remained intransigent. They were only ready to concede a short-term commitment not to challenge such programs at the WTO, without providing a systemic solution to developing countries that needs such policy instruments to guarantee the right to food.

(2)    Then, most of the so-called least-developed countries (LCDs) package is “best endeavour” language, which means “we’ll try but don’t promise.” The texts on 1) duty-free export access for poor countries (DFQF), 2) special and differential treatment (S&D monitoring), and 3) preferential rules of origin or on the implementation of the services waiver are thus not likely to make an actual difference for LDCs’ economies.

(3)    The less said about the text on cotton the better, as it’s mostly a commitment to regularly monitor the very same subsidies that were already declared illegal by the WTO eight years ago.

(4)    As for trade facilitation, it has always been developed country pet issue. Implementing such an agreement would have a high cost (updating  laws and regulations, improving and building infrastructures, capacity building of officials, etc) for developing countries, whereas most, if not all of the measures under consideration, are already implemented in advanced economies.

If Ministers can reach agreement on this package, this will be no cause for celebration. It would do little to rebalance trade rules or even make the WTO relevant to the challenges faced by developing countries. If they don’t reach an agreement, the negotiating function of the WTO is likely to end up like Monthy Python’s parrot and rest for some time.

But have no fear, whatever happens with the negotiations, we will always be able to “celebrate” Yemen’s membership to the WTO in Bali. As is standard practice in this elite club, membership comes at a very high price, including in that particular case, a commitment to implement the very far-reaching TRIPS agreement by 2016—despite the fact that other LDCs just got a renewed waiver on TRIPs until 2021, at the very least.

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