WTO talks an unfair match that pits the rich against the poor

NAIROBI: If you lock powerful trading giants of the West in the same room with our small economies from the Third World to negotiate, chances are there will be no outcome because they are simply not on the same plane. Or if at all there will be a deal, it will be a raw one. In its 20 years of existence, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has not created a level playing field that would ensure benefits for all its member countries, some of whom hardly do any international trade.

Setting rules for global trade that would please small farmers in Asia and Africa, and multinational corporations in Europe and America at the same time was not going to be easy anyway, and that’s the trouble with WTO. The big players are determined to set these rules, and they invariably do so in fine print but the small players often fail to notice it. However, 20 years later, some emerging economies are a bit wiser and may not walk into the negotiations blindfolded and hence the slow pace.

Western nations trade proposals are often driven by their corporate world whose single most important motive is price and market domination. This explains why small family farmers associations in the West and their civil society usually hold protests at such trade gatherings. Similarly in the developing nations, it is the modern sector that often calls the shots in multilateral or bilateral trade deals. And not surprisingly too, even the usual budgetary proposals on incentives on tax measures and policies invariably favour the corporate world, not our SMEs or farmers.

For Africa whose populations largely live below the poverty line, and whose subsistence economies are dependent on agriculture, WTO is yet deliver on market access for their produce. In the Doha negotiations in 2001, developing countries sought to obtain deals on agriculture and development agenda, which would see the developed nations, eliminate trade barriers, and farm subsidies to allow for global fair and ethical trade. It became hard for the big Northern economies to let go, and negotiations have been a circus since.

The weak governments of the South have not thrown in the towel nonetheless, but the organisation risks being irrelevant if there is no payoff to the world’s least developed countries, and the developing nations in general. The recent globalisation of the world economy, multilateral economic pacts and bilateral agreements in the past two decades have all conspired to generally water down the impact of WTO. In short, the world has moved on, particularly for the North. This explains why they are now keen on bringing new issues to the table, which seeks to liberalise procurement, investments, mobility of professional services and privatisation of state corporations. These issues will allow their multinational corporations and professionals take control in developing countries. At the same time, they continue procrastinating on our lifeline — agriculture. It has remained difficult to export our tea, coffee, flowers and other commodities to the Northern countries because of subsidies, tariffs and non-tariff barriers designed to protect their farmers.

Deals on matters such as ICT do not in effect benefit our countries because the manufacturers are mainly in the North. Services is another area that we are ill-prepared to sign off in bold. Unfair trade terms have the potential to kill local economies in the long run and instigate social instability if we are not careful. We must not have a deal at all costs!

The greatest encouragement in the Nairobi talks is the hard ball played by emerging nations such as India. If the West does not climb down, let’s archive the WTO and go regional, and continental. We will do better.