Don't let WTO make more unfair trade rules on African soil

We have painted a rather rosy picture about Kenya’s prospects of the 10th World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference happening in Nairobi this week.

Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala even whipped up some claim that the meeting will inject in excess of Sh2.6 billion into the Kenyan economy over the one week.

Supposing we overlooked the half-truths in that claim, what really should be our take-home from the conference? Why is it important that it is held in Africa? Could it accrue any tangible outcomes for economic development in Africa or will it reinforce the known unfair trade rules that have undermined economic growth in the continent and in other poor countries for decades?

The WTO was established to organise and facilitate free trade to ensure economic development across countries of the world. However, today, it is loathed and regarded by many as a mechanism for facilitating an approach to organising international trade in favour of developed countries.

Many view the organisation as the place where unfair trade policies and decisions that have prevented developing countries from performing favourably in international trade are made.

So why should we be so excited about hosting a meeting of such an organisation riddled with so many claims of unfairness and unjust policies?

Well, at the United Nations Summit in September 2015, world leaders ratified what was referred to as the blueprint for dealing with global development challenges – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At best, this was a wish-list of ‘ought-to-bes’ that without action and substantive resource investments means very little to the lives of many poor people across the globe.

Unlike its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which came with significant resource commitments from developed countries in the form of foreign aid, the SDGs did not. What this implies is that achieving those popular goals will depend a lot on governments in developing countries to mobilise resources domestically to fund programmes to meet them.

Simply put, domestic resource mobilisation requires growing economies. This cannot happen when developing countries continue to perform unfavourably in international trade because of unfair rules set by the WTO that undermine their economic development.

The irony is that despite opening up the SGDs process to developing countries, developed countries have hijacked the most important aspect of achievement of those goals, which is their financing. They refuse to negotiate or concede on important agreements and proposals to make trade fairer for developing countries like removal of agricultural subsidies that make their products unduly competitive in the international market.

The unbalanced and unfair trade regime sustained by the WTO threatens, now more than ever, the livelihoods of many poor people and profoundly undermines economic diversification, value addition and industrial development in many developing countries. This has to stop.

In 2001, at a similar meeting in Doha Qatar, it was agreed that WTO needs to be more development enhancing. The Doha trade negotiations were thus mandated to craft a meaningful development package that could address some of those chronic trade policy imbalances.

More than a decade down the line, the fact that the WTO is frustrating economic development policy both actively and implicitly instead of facilitating persists.

There could not be a better place for Africans to make a resounding case for meaningful reform of the WTO. There cannot be a better time to protest the increasingly aggressive positioning of rich countries in the WTO, demanding more liberal trade yet blocking proposals for fair trade from developing countries.

So what must this meeting achieve for Africa and other developing countries? Broadly, Africans must insist on a strong development outcome that facilitates the continent to act on the sustainable development objectives.

At this meeting, we must confront the reluctance of US, EU and other developed States to negotiate a permanent solution to food insecurity and agricultural production.

The meeting should address the insistence by developed countries on adverse tariff formulas that will see poor countries cut more tariffs and stifle industrial development and job creation.

The meeting should also resolutely deal with the Trade Related aspects of International Property rights (TRIPS) agreement that has been perennially under negotiation to allow flexibilities in enforcement for developing countries. As it is, the agreement reinforces stringent protection of intellectual property rights that limits technological development and access to efficient agricultural inputs and medicine in developing countries.

The complexities and frustrations characteristic of negotiations at the WTO notwithstanding, Africa must not let the WTO reinforce and write more unfair trade rules that will continue to stifle growth prospects while it meets on African soil.