Labor

Huge International Coalition Calls for a Big Change to WTO Agenda

Negotiations in the WTO are heating up – and they are going badly.

Remember the “Doha Round” of the WTO? Yeah, I wish I didn’t either.

Negotiations in the WTO are heating up – and they are going badly. In November last year, WTO members agreed to come up with a “Work Program” for resurrecting the Doha Round by July 31. As you may remember, it had been stalled for years, but since the new Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil, took over in September of 2013, he has been shaking things up. The first WTO expansion agreement, on “Trade Facilitation,” was concluded in December 2013, along with a promise to negotiate to reduce WTO constraints WTO on developing countries’ ability to feed their poor. 

It must be remembered that developing countries only agreed to launch a new round of negotiations in order to address problems with the previous round that resulted in the founding of the WTO in 1995. Since then, they have been advocating for a series of fixes to the existing agreements. Many of their proposals dovetail with calls from global civil society for a turnaround in the global trade agenda.

However, after nearly 14 of negotiations, the United States has decided that India, China, Brazil, and other developing countries – in which the vast majority of the world’s impoverished people live – can no longer be considered as developing countries. Even worse, they want to clear the deck of the development demands and get on with introducing even more radical liberalization agenda. Thus the U.S. – sometimes in conjunction with the European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but sometimes unilaterally – is insisting on jettisoning the previous agreements, “re-calibrating” the talks, and reducing the ambition of the deal. Unfortunately, what they are pushing to keep is the wrong agenda, and the agreements they are insisting on abandoning are all of the desperately needed improvements.

That’s why today, 341 civil society organizations from more than 100 countries sent a letter to WTO members demanding that governments stop negotiating on the wrong agenda of WTO expansion, and instead take up an agenda focused on food security and urgent development needs of countries for global trade rules that facilitate rather than hinder development.

With the Work Program deadline just weeks away, in advance of the 10th Ministerial meeting of the WTO in Nairobi fast approaching this December 15-18, 2015, the time is short for governments to change course. 

Wrong Agenda: Further Liberalization of Services and Goods and New Corporate Wish Lists

There is a lot about the Doha Round that should be jettisoned. The letter notes that “[n]egotiations to further liberalize ‘trade in services’ through the expansion of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) must be immediately halted. Strong public oversight over both public and private services is crucial for democracy, the public interest and development, as well as for the orderly functioning of the services market. The deregulation of the financial sector which was encouraged in part through 1990s–era rules of GATS led to the recent global financial crisis and the ensuing worldwide wave of recessions.”

That, along with our belief in quality, accessible public services, is one of the many reasons why civil society also opposes services liberalization through the proposed Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). You may not have heard of the TISA, because negotiations – ongoing for more than two years now – are being held in secret. Fortunately Wikileaks released the largest trove of secret trade documents last month on theTISA, and just last week released updated versions with analysis – including the core text.

“For similar reasons we oppose the continuation of negotiations to further liberalize trade in goods through the Non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) pillar,” continues the letter. “The structural transformation that is required for many African countries and LDCs to create jobs and alleviate poverty – key aspects of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals – requires the protection of infant industries, the promotion of added-value exports, technology transfer, and other tools that were used by every developed country on their path to development. In addition, the global jobs crisis in which tens of millions of people remain unemployed cannot be resolved with more liberalization of trade in goods.

That’s why the letter notes that “[a]ny future negotiations on trade in goods – including those in the NAMA negotiations but also in the proposed pluri-laterals including the expansion of the Information Technology Agreement (ITA-II) and the negotiations on Environmental Goods – must focus on job creation and the Decent Work agenda developed by the International Labor Organization working in conjunction with the global labor movement, rather than on the narrow agenda of reducing corporate taxes.”

Throwing Development Overboard

But it gets worse. The main goal of the U.S. and friends is to clear a path in the WTO to introduce a dangerous set of new issues that correspond to their agenda in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These include the so-called ‘Singapore Issues’ like investment, government procurement, and competition policy, which were rejected by developing countries in 2003 in the WTO and cannot be introduced while the Doha Round is still in play, along with other issues including disciplines on state owned enterprises and electronic commerce.

They intend to do this by getting rid of the Doha Round: either by concluding a smaller version (with just the bad bits) or by permanently suspending it. A main strategy is to split developing countries, by pitting the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) against the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and other so-called “emerging-market” countries to ensure that India, China et al also “make concessions” as if they were developed countries – when they have the largest populations of poor people of any countries! And the shenanigans involved in the negotiations have gotten out of hand: secret “Green Room" meetings where zero African countries and zero LDCs are invited. As the former leader of the alliance of all developing countries in the WTO when he was Brazil’s Ambassador, Director General Azevêdo should be ashamed.

The Right Agenda: Food Security and Development Flexibilities

If that weren’t enough, the United States is unilaterally blocking discussion of the needed changes to WTO, focused on food security. Last November, members agreed to have a permanent solution on food security by December 31, 2015. This is to address one of the worst hypocrises in WTO rules: while most developed countries are allowed to give subsidies to large agribusiness exporters, even what those subsidies damage other countries’ markets, poor countries are not allowed to subsidize poor farmers to buy food for hungry citizens. Although this seems like an obvious candidate for immediate change, talks have been stalled as the U.S. refuses to even discuss it at the WTO.

At the same time, it is refusing to talk about previously agreed flexibilities to allow developing countries to deal with devastating agricultural import surges (called the Special Safeguard Mechanism) and insisting thatall flexibilities for developing countries must be dropped.

If that wasn’t enough, the U.S. is refusing to talk about cutting its trade-distorting domestic support and its export subsidies – and remember, that’s the reason developing countries agreed to the round to begin with! This issue is core to countries like Brazil, and Azevêdo, who led the charge of developing countries for many years. Now he is clearly taking the side of the developed countries, as he made a new proposal for everyone to cut their subsidies – even China and India, when they need to be able to increase them, but for the poor and hungry instead of agribusiness exporters.

And that’s just in agriculture. The developing country agenda of changing rules across the WTO, and helping LDCs benefit more from trade is not even being discussed.

Azevêdo is apparently upset that his secret Green Room tactics are being criticized, and was finally forced to report to the membership about the secret talks.

Much like when he was able to get a deal on Trade Facilitation during the last Ministerial meeting in December 2013 – without anyone having the time to read the final text – many experts in Geneva think it is actually possible to conclude a deal by this December. 

In Our World Is Not for Sale network, we have been clear: after 20 years of failed policies of the WTO, it is time for a Turnaround! There needs to be an immediate cessation of all talks for further liberalization, and instead governments around the world need to start working in a completely different direction for global trade talks that put jobs, food, and sustainable development issues first.

Civil society needs to send a clear message to turn around the direction of global trade talks. Building on the global letter, work on the national level to ensure that elected officials reflect our goals and values is essential.  

What happens if we don’t act now?

If we fail to get an agreement on food security this year, countries like India, but also Botswana, Cameroon,Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Senegal, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, and even LDCs including Bangladesh, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, who have public stockholding programs, will be constrained from implementing this best practices to reduce hunger on a massive scale. This means, flat out, that more poor people will go hungry.

After 20 years it is clear that there are a lot of problems with the existing WTO. If we allow the status quo to continue, the terrible rules will continue to have negative impacts on people, including not letting countries achieve the proposed Sustainable Development Goals being negotiated in the United Nations.

On the other hand, if we allow the WTO to expand liberalization, it would mean even more race-to-the-bottom policies would be bound by international law. Think of it as austerity but mandated legally, and just about impossible to get out of.

If they are able to officially close the Doha Round, either by getting a bad deal or by “suspending” it, it leaves the terrain open for them to bring investment, competition policy, government procurement, and other policies back into the WTO.  

Instead, civil society must hold governments accountable to turnaround the agenda and remove WTO obstacles to food security, and respond to developing countries’ needs for more flexibilities in the rules.

The letter from civil society concludes: for the Nairobi Ministerial to be a “success,” it must deliver on development and turn around the WTO.

That would be a first step towards a much larger transformation of the current global trade rules from a system that focuses on expanding trade, to focusing on enabling states and communities to achieve food, jobs, and sustainable development – and that will be a world without the WTO.

Deborah James, [email protected], facilitates the campaign on the WTO for the Our World Is Not for Sale network. 

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