Trade and social concerns

By Najma Sadeque

Published in Dawn – Opinion page January 6, 2006

THERE were 6,000 negotiators, 3,000 registered business and NGO lobbyists, and some 5,000 stakeholder-protesters from 149 countries at the WTO’s recent Hong Kong ministerial. Non-official participants offered over 600 workshops and other events. Fairly small by the standards of the biggest summits; but then, Hong Kong isn’t sprawling enough to accommodate huge numbers.

The ministerial did not get off to a propitious start. Industrialised-country negotiators were especially peeved. When they arrived in Hong Kong, they were greeted by a quarter-page newspaper ad that asked, “Will WTO’s trade negotiators take the food out of children’s mouths?” It had been placed, not by any NGO or peasants coalition, but by — of all institutions — Unicef, UNHCR, and WFP.

The advertisement called on delegates to protect food aid donations for emergencies. Even before WTO entered the picture, food aid has dropped by half since 1999, while the numbers of those affected by hunger have soared. So certain UN agencies were concerned. People in disaster situations cannot wait for long-term projects to help them grow food or earn the cash to buy it; they have to eat immediately and regularly to get a self-reliant process going.

Last year, three-fourths of donated food came from rich donor countries in the form of wheat, maize, rice, beans, and vegetable oil, which is most profitable for subsidy-receiving big farmers and agro-businesses. Half that food went to nations that are not even WTO members — they are much too poor.

Peter Mandelson, European trade commissioner, responded angrily with a letter to the editor. But he had a point. People will remember how after the Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake humanitarian agencies repeatedly appealed for donations in cash rather than in kind. The EU had finally recognized that aid shipped great, slow distances, especially food, usually came too late. Money, on the other hand, which could be transmitted immediately, could purchase locally available food, thereby benefiting local producers and the local economy as well.

Mandelson deplored the fact that some countries “use government purchasing to offload surplus commodities onto world markets in the guise of food aid,” pointing a finger at the US. Countries should still donate food aid but as cash contributions with no strings attached, he said. Some had already given up on WTO as a viable institution even before the ministerial. Three weeks earlier, the Commonwealth Business Forum passed a resolution in Malta, suggesting that if the Doha round of trade negotiations failed “countries that are willing should explore the possibility of establishing a Commonwealth preferential or free trade area”. The meeting was attended by over 600 leading personalities from the business sector and governments representatives from 50 countries, and included over 50 ministers and six heads of state.

According to a World Bank study, a successful Doha round could add 300 billion dollars to global profits. However, only 48 billion dollars of that — less that one-sixth — would go to developing countries that represented five-sixth — five billion — of the world’s people. The per capita addition would be pitiful, and people would still be deeply entrenched in poverty. It did not sound promising.

Notwithstanding the WTO, other countries including the US, were making bilateral deals; so why couldn’t Commonwealth countries do the same among themselves? Commonwealth trade currently accounts for 20 per cent of international trade and investment, making it the second largest bloc after the EU.

Protesters came from all over the world, mainly agricultural, and developing countries. The desperate but determined South Korean farmers had come 1,500-strong, well-organized and rehearsed, and therefore tended to be more visible than those who came in country groups of twenties or fifties or just a handful.) At Cancun a Korean farmer had committed suicide to make his point. His compatriots at home and abroad have since taken up his slogan “WTO kills farmers”. Farmer suicides have continued in unacceptably large numbers in a number of agricultural countries including South Asia.

In Hong Kong, nothing so drastic was planned. All the protesters wanted were to be allowed to peacefully enter the Convention Centre for a brief while to present their concerns to official delegates. After all, it was supposedly for the sake of ordinary folk everywhere that the talks were named the “development round”, suggesting that people and development would receive top priority. That would have meant putting food security and sovereignty, social welfare and local industrialization before other concerns.

Alex MacGillivray of the London-based think-tank Account Ability, who has been following world summits, dismissed any such pangs of conscience as he did 15 years of economists’ claims that freeing world trade would equally benefit everyone. “Trade negotiators don’t believe a word of it, which is why they fight so hard and so dirty for their country or company,” he commented, “To the negotiators, trade is not about cooperation; it is about cutthroat competitiveness. It’s an old but fair criticism that the very culture of trade negotiators makes a mockery of the goal of a development round intended to benefit poor nations. Fleets of black limousines ferry delegates from luxury hotel to conference centre to nearby restaurant — all within easy walking distance.”

Had the protesters been permitted their plea, there would have been no need for tear gas, pepper spray, water cannon and harsh prison treatment of the jailed 900, disciplinary measures that befit criminals, not the unarmed protesting in despair. The street demonstrations would have taken place, but would have simply remained noisily colourful, while an undistracted media might have given more attention to the issues they raised, not just the official ones.

“Human rights cannot be traded,” the Human Rights Caucus asserted more bluntly, “Developing countries are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and providing adequate health care for their people. Access to adequate food, health and education are all human rights and must not become bargaining chips in a power game between unequal players.”

The Caucus drew the attention of WTO chief Pascal Lamy to a statement endorsed by 150 organizations from all over the world, released earlier on International Human Rights Day. It underlined the primacy of human rights over trade, and demanded action to maintain things that way. Anticipating criticism and resistance, Lamy was quick to adopt NGO language. “The WTO is heading for trouble if it ignores the link between trade and human rights,” he said His words. It rang hollow, and thereafter he made himself scarce to media attention.

The “development round” turned out to be a misnomer. Indeed, the delegates discussed everything but development. The numbers that the EU and US crunched were global averages that did not reflect ground realities. International activist NGOs had summed up in advance that “No deal is better than a bad deal”.

Seminar after seminar agreed that far from helping governments to protect their citizens, the WTO agreement increasingly squeezed the policy space they needed to implement human rights obligations without which development was not possible. Not surprisingly, GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) and NAMA (Non-Agricultural Market Access) came under particular attack.

Representatives of the European Farmers’ Coordination, the National Family Farm Coalition USA, the National Farmers Union Canada, as well as La Via Campesina representing the peasants of Latin America and poorer countries, denounced negotiators’ proposals. “TNCs are reaping record profits enabled through a flawed subsidy system which has stolen the ability to earn a living from farming,” their statement complained, “We are producing more and more and getting less and less.” Most significantly, a spokesman of the US National Family Farm Coalition warned other countries not to believe US promises to significantly cut subsidies. “The trade representative does not make agricultural policy in the US — Congress does. Bush’s own party Congressmen have publicly said they would oppose large subsidy cuts. — The farm and rural economy in the US could collapse if there are no price floors and supply management tools to replace subsidies.”

Many South governments continue to portray the vague, jargon-heavy declaration towards postponement of a final agreement as cause for hope. Grassroots opponents gearing up to make their governments face reality and responsibility instead wonder whether the next meeting will allow people’s voices in.


About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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