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Developing Countries in Despair over WTO preparations for Doha

By Aileen Kwa*

"There is a development deficit. The marginalisation of many developing countries in the global economy is an attestation to this fact. And this is a true reality check… It is clear we are in a state of impasse. We characterise the situation as discouraging, discomforting, demoralising and in some instances, even depressing."

This is the decidedly downbeat assessment of the Malaysian delegation in the statement to the WTO General Council Meeting in Preparation for Doha Ministerial Conference on 30 July 2001.

The World Trade Organisation conducted a 'reality check' to assess how close or far apart members were in agreeing on a common agenda for the Ministerial in Doha in November. In preparation for this assessment, a report on the current state of preparatory work for Doha was issued by the Chair of the General Council and WTO's Director General (Job (01)/118).

Developing countries, angered by the biased process of consultations so far, the lack of progress in areas of interest to them, as well as the lack of accurate representation in the report on specific issues, used the opportunity of this reality check to voice their concerns.

Two main issues were highlighted by developing countries. First, there has been no progress at all on implementation issues - any such report by the chair is being overly optimistic and 'not factual'. And second there is no growing consensus on the new round - as the Chair and DG's report seem to suggest.

In a private interview, a delegate from Africa said that the report "was not a reality check. We do not think it reflects what went on in the consultations. It is quite unbalanced in the way weight is given to one position over another." In the WTO General Council, Pakistan's Ambassador Akram said that the report, "reflects a sense of underlying optimism, which we believe, may not be justified by the realities on the ground."

In short, developing countries' assess the process as depressing, with no movement on implementation, no growing consensus on new round, no agreement on new issues and no internal transparency.

In general, developing countries expressed frustration that there really has been no movement in the Doha preparation on issues of interest to them. The process so far has concentrated on trying to get agreement on new issues (pushed by the EU and now US) while implementation issues have been subjected to a process of being increasingly watered down and marginalised.

Malaysia voiced these concerns in the following way:
'By focussing mainly on the issues that are currently outside the scope of the WTO, we create the impression that these are the only main issues that would make or break the Doha Ministerial Conference… Clever drafting cannot resolve fundamental difficulties and this has to be recognised… It is clear we are in a state of impasse. We characterise the situation as discouraging, discomforting, demoralising and in some instances, even depressing'.

India's Ambassador Narayanan, in response to Mike Moore's opening statement that the WTO would be rendered "irrelevant" without a new round, said:

'I have to say that his argument is not particularly convincing… I am afraid the approach suggested by the Director General ignores past experience of developing countries, current realities of power equations and obvious future risk. It is a matter of some regret for me that the Director General who has been a close observer of the way the implementation issues are handled by the major trading partners for nearly two years now, should be advising developing countries to accept new asymmetries and imbalances in order to remove past asymmetries and imbalances. In this context, my own assessment is that a new comprehensive round of negotiations, mainly aimed at removing even the limited policy space available to developing countries in area of crucial development interests to them, will only result in a net additionality to the existing asymmetries and imbalances."

Pakistan Ambassador Akram's remarks to the General Council were even more to the point: 'Mr Chairman, we may have spent 35 plenary meetings in preparing for Doha. But I think if we are frank with each other, we should admit that we have not moved very far forward on the road to Doha.'

Implementation issues are top of the agenda for developing countries at the WTO. 'Implementation' represents the broken promises and inequities which have emerged for the South as a result of the Uruguay Round package - for example in TRIMS, TRIPS, agriculture, textiles and anti-dumping. Since Seattle, much time has been spent on some topics under 'implementation' but with no results because the developed countries have been unwilling to yield.

Addressing the inherently biased nature of the WTO's QUAD-and-Secretariat-driven negotiating process, Pakistan, criticising the Chair and DG's report said:

"Particularly in the area of implementation, it is impossible to conclude that there are, I quote, 'welcome advances' or 'positive developments' or 'some headway in the process'. On the contrary, there has been an obvious lack of political will on the part of our major trading partners even to engage in discussions and negotiations, much less to respond positively, to the concerns and proposals relating to implementation. In fact, virtually no consultations were even convened with regard to two of the major areas of implementation, i.e. textiles and anti-dumping."

Akram then posed the questions: "Are the major trading partners politically incapable of responding positively to the main implementation concerns of the developing countries? Some of the news that we read may indicate that that may be the case. Alternatively, are they holding back their responses on implementation issues mainly for tactical reasons, in order to extract concessions from developing countries on their ambitions and objectives for Doha?"

India's Ambassador Narayanan also remarked on the incredibly slow progress on implementation issues, saying "If you take into consideration the fact that most of the implementation proposals have been on the table for nearly three years now, the fact that these issues and concerns have to be addressed and resolved latest by the Doha Ministerial Conference which is barely three and a half months away, the fact that subsequent to December 2000 when only three decisions were taken, no decision has been taken on any implementation-related proposal…"

In sum, India's view was that 'there is no significant change in the attitude of the major trading partners… I would say that the element in your report which indicates that the 'progress at this stage in achieving concrete results has not been as rapid as might have been hoped' is a gross under-statement." Ambassador Narayanan went on to say that "we are terribly disappointed and distressed about the lack of progress in dealing meaningfully with implementation issues and concerns which have been on the table for a long time now."

Zimbabwe, speaking on behalf of the African group, also said that on implementation issues, "we can all agree that more progress will be required before Doha… Quite frankly, the current situation is far from satisfactory and challenges us to intensify the search for urgent and meaningful solutions."

Malaysia also commented that they were "very disappointed that there has not been any substantial outcome on any of the implementation related concerns, and we wish to remind Members of the General Council Decision to resolve these matters at the latest by the Fourth Ministerial Conference."

The LDCs, fresh from their Ministerial meeting in Zanzibar, reiterated the position taken there. Representing the LDCs, Tanzania said, "Ministers considered the so-called Singapore issues that include investment, competition policy, environment, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation. Given the fact that the issues are complex, and divergent views exist and that the new issues are yet to be fully understood, especially regarding their implications on LDCs' development, the Ministers were of the view that the study process should continue in the working groups and that time is not ripe for LDCs to undertake negotiations for multilateral regimes on these areas."

Pakistan, on the same subject said: 'We note that considerable time has been spent on consultations relating to some of these issues, and some of the 35 meetings have been expended on this exercise; certainly more time on these issues than on the issues relating to textiles and anti-dumping. But, we see little prospect of bridging the gap and reaching consensus on a negotiating mandates for these issues."

Malaysia also stated unambiguously that they were not interested in any of the new subjects - investment, competition or trade facilitation. In fact, on trade facilitation Malaysia said, "My delegation is unable to accept the report's assertion that there seems to be some degree of acceptance that a negotiating mandate would probably be that as outlined in paragraph 25. It was clear from the consultations that apprehension remained as to whether new rules were needed."

On behalf of the African group, Zimbabwe in the meeting, commenting on the Chair and DG's report on new issues said, "I must say with all frankness that we are disappointed by the way in which these differences have been portrayed… For example, on the relationship between trade and investment… your Report says some members want the work of the working group 'prolonged'. This reflects a judgement on the timeframe. The issue here is for the Working Group to complete its task and fulfil its mandate, and not merely prolonging its existence.'

Ambassador Narayanan voiced many developing countries' perceptions of the process so far. He said that India's assessment was that
a) Without meaningful results on implementation issues and concerns, Doha Ministerial is unlikely to succeed
b) There is no great enthusiasm for a comprehensive round involving a wide variety of new subjects as proposed by some major trading partners; in fact, there is considerable amount of resistance;
c) The 'all or nothing approach' is risky in as much as it is likely to result in 'nothing' rather than 'all'

Mike Moore, referring to the issue of internal transparency in Doha preparations, said, "internal transparency and participation have been greatly improved." He backed this statement by stating that 35 plenary meetings of the Council, formal and informal devoted to the Doha process have been conducted.

Contrary to his assertion, however, Jamaica said that they were very disappointed that they have been left out of the informal consultations that have been going on.

The truth of the matter is that Green Room consultations still take place in proliferation. Many developing country delegates are not invited to the myriad "informals" organised each day on different topics. This lack of internal transparency makes it much easier for the big players in the WTO to split the ranks of developing countries when push comes to shove.

While developing countries seem to be holding their ground for the time being, pressure is intensifying from all sides. According to an Asean delegate, pressure tactics from the EU and others will increase. Many African and Latin American countries do not want the launch of a new round. However, many rely on aid and trade preferences. "One call to your boss, to tell your man to cool off. That's all it takes. We can expect this in the days to come."

African countries in particular will be targeted with pressures of all forms in particular because their agreement is essential to legitimise further trade liberalisation - trade is good for the poor, after all! Indeed, the proponents of a new round have been using Egypt and South Africa to work on their African colleagues: a kind of north-south axis. Kenya in the east and Gabon in the west complete the compass and have been targeted to change their positions and become ringleaders for a new round.

The battleground has shifted, from Geneva back to capitals. Unless trade ministers, already under pressure from the powerful countries, start feeling the heat from civil society resistance in the next two months, it is unlikely that they will be able to stand their ground. With meagre offerings of market openings, aid packages and more technical assistance, the Doha ministerial could launch a limited new trade round with a mandate that gets expanded as the round progresses.

One prominent NGO leader from the South, commenting on this possibility, said that if a new round were launched, Genoa might just be a daily reality in Geneva next year.

* Aileen Kwa is a research associate with Focus on the Global South. She is based in Geneva.

. For statements by countries please click here


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