Youth Are Building Presence Inside WTO

Like much of civil society, youth participation at the World Trade Organization doesn't have a long history. In fact, its history is only a few weeks old. But at the 6th Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong (WTO 6), more than a dozen young people from all over the world attended the meeting with official accreditation, a forum previously exclusive to government negotiators. Hundreds more protested, with demonstrations at nearby Victoria Park, while others held a youth information booth at the fair trade center nearby.

Most young people know little about the World Trade Organization, and with the number of protests growing each year, the WTO has come to stand for everything negative about globalization, from exploitation of workers, outsourced jobs and overconsumption, to cultural change and environmental degradation. This year, instead of their usual posts at a nearby hotel, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were allowed into the meeting, where many followed each step of the negotiations.

Why Young People and Trade?

"Young people need to know about trade issues, because they are the ones that are going to suffer from these decisions," said Sudyumna Dahal, 25, from the organization Youth Initiative in Nepal.

In September, 'Sudy' went to Cambodia to participate in a program with Oxfam International Youth Parliament (IYP). After learning about trade and completing a Trade Action Plan at the workshop, he went back to Nepal and held awareness workshops for youth.

Korean Farmers prepare for protests.

Another young person with Oxfam IYP, Irene Banda, 22, from Zambia, attended the training in Cambodia, and then went home to collect more than 1.3 million signatures from Zambian farmers. Now attending the global meeting, her perspective has broadened. "Before I came here, I cared about the effects WTO had on Zambian farmers; now I see it affects some countries way worse."

Because Irene prepared for the meeting beforehand, working with community groups and educating herself on the issues, she brings legitimacy to her meetings in Hong Kong with government delegations and other NGOs. When she returns home, Irene will debrief her communities about what happened and continue to watch the moves of her government, working with other citizens to hold the state accountable.

Do Youth Views Have Impact?

Several youth NGOs have been able to influence their country's negotiators. Youth organizations in Norway lobbied the Norwegian government for months leading up to the Ministerial, urging them not to require developing countries to liberalize public services in exchange for other trade benefits.

Youth are Building Presence inside WTO
WTO youth participants pose wearing white bands (representing the Make Poverty History campaign).

Just two weeks before the Ministerial, the Norwegian government changed its position, partly due to the persistent pressure from the youth organizations. Since Norway, a rich country independent from the European Union, changed its position, many poor countries were better able to take a similar position.

A group from Canada, "Youth Inside," met several times with their Canadian delegation, which they say welcomed their critique of the WTO. The interaction so impressed the Minister of International Trade that he suggested the creation of a Youth Advisory Council to his office. "I really feel that there needs to be a youth presence [at the WTO]. NGOs don't have as much influence as I've seen in other meetings," said Elissa Smith, 20. "Their presence is incapacitated, which is not cool since the WTO affects everything."

One-fifth of global carbon emissions comes from the transportation of goods -- with the amount of transportation expected to increase 300 percent in the next 20 years. Elissa believes global trade has the potential to lift millions of people out of extreme poverty, but that trade rules and policies are systematically skewed toward wealthy business interests. She thinks that trade rules rooted on principles of sustainable development, food security, right to education, clean water and labor standards are possible.

Additional Information and Resources
What is the WTO?
The World Trade Organization, founded in 1995, serves 150 member countries from its headquarters in Geneva, setting and enforcing the rules for 97 percent of world trade. It is intended to help trade flow smoothly, freely, fairly and predictable by administering trade agreements, acting as a forum for trade negotiations and settling of disputes, reviewing national trade policies and assisting developing countries in trade policy issues through technical assistance and training programs.

What's the debate about?
The main sticking point of the current round of trade negotiations, known as the development, or "Doha Round," has been farm subsidies in developed countries such as the European Union, the U.S. and Japan. Poor countries argue that their agricultural sectors are damaged when farmers in wealthy countries are encouraged to overproduce. Both the U.S. and the E.U. have each proposed cutting subsidies, but they are each waiting for the other to act first.

What happened in Hong Kong?
Overall, the progress achieved in Hong Kong has been described as "minimal," but considering that the last two rounds of trade talks in Cancun and Seattle ended in failure, the fact that an agreement was reached is still significant.

-- Developed countries will end farm-export subsidies by 2013, but many suspect the E.U. will not act aggressively enough to meet the 2013 goal,
-- Developed countries will eliminate all export subsidies on cotton in 2006, but many suspect that pushing this provision through U.S. Congress will be difficult. This provision also fails to address domestic subsidies, 90 percent of cotton subsidies and the main reason for the low prices that make African markets inviable.

No deals:
-- Developed countries didn't get cuts in industrial tariffs. NGOs forecast that this will open up local industries to unfair competition from the developed industries and multinationals of rich countries. This could lead to massive job losses and income losses for poor countries.
-- Developing countries didn't get formulas for reducing other farm subsidies and agricultural tariffs.

Action Aid International, Seattle Times, Associated Press)

Read the Youth Blog from WTO 6 here.

Global Youth Action Network.

Youth Inside.

Oxfam International Youth Parliament.

For more on youth participation in international decision-making, click here.

The World Trade Organization.

International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development.

Action Aid.

For Elissa, the daughter of five generations of farmers, trade is personal. "The corner store doesn't stock my father's fruit anymore. Instead it sells apples from New Zealand because they are cheaper to grow and fly around the world. I remember one summer when the cherries were left to rot on the trees because Chinese cherries were so cheap that my father couldn't afford to pick them. I want to be a farmer like my great, great, great grandfather but I have been forced to the city to find work."

Young People Must Lead the Way Forward

Just because the issues are complex and contentious, it doesn't mean young people should not attend the WTO. Like anyone else, young people can prepare for the meeting beforehand, and contribute where their knowledge and passion lies, whether it is in environment, education or agriculture.

Young people attend many other international processes, as official members of country delegations and with NGOs. Perhaps the most well-known form of international youth participation happens at the United Nations, where young people are Youth Delegates to the U.N. General Assembly every October, and also participate in U.N. processes on HIV/AIDS, status of women and sustainable development. Many countries (excluding the U.S.) have National Youth Councils and Regional Youth Platforms, such as the European Youth Forum.

"Young people participate at the U.N., but those decisions do not have a binding impact. The WTO decisions are so much more immediate. You can just sense from the people here that it's dead serious," said Luis Davila, 23, from Venezuela, Global Youth Action Network (GYAN). GYAN is further exploring just how young people are working on the trade issues that affect them, filming a documentary about the young people at WTO 6.

Like many adults interviewed, Douglas E. Campbell, from Campbell Agri Business Strategists Inc., a Canadian pro-trade lobby, agreed that young people have a place at the WTO if they did their homework. "We can all be well-intentioned but totally ignorant. If you are here, you start separating it out. You can be two steps away from Peter Mandelson [EU trade chief], and you can see if he is a straight-shooter, if he listens. There were some tough lessons from Seattle and Cancun, and the WTO has had to work to become more transparent."

Young people at WTO 6 are working to ensure youth presence at international trade meetings will increase, and that youth are educated at the local level about how trade issues affect them. For youth working on trade to be effective, it takes more than just showing up at one meeting with accreditation. Furthermore, the nuances of trade agreements are hammered out at smaller day-to-day meetings in Geneva, when the eye of the media is elsewhere.

Like Irene from Zambia or Sudy from Nepal, the most important work happens at the local level before coming to the meeting. Ideally, young people affected from "dumping" of chicken in Gambia, West Africa, could form alliances with youth organizations from countries doing the dumping, like the Netherlands, which ships chicken parts that are "unfit for consumption" to sell cheaply in West African markets. In the case of the United States, what would happen if young people from cotton farms were able to have an international exchange with young cotton farmers in Africa unable to sell their products as a result of U.S. subsidies? And what would happen if, after they returned, they met with their congressional representative and formed advocacy groups at their universities?

Achieving trade justice depends on building relationships -- people to people. Before attending WTO 6, Cissy Lui, 25, an Oxfam youth campaigner from Hong Kong, visited rice farms in the Philippines. There she learned about how rice growing is dependent on many factors, including sunshine and rainfall, irrigation, land fertility, seeds, fertilizers and labor, many of which rely heavily on government and import values. She was inspired by the determination of the Philippine groups she met with to preserve their rivers and trees, and was frustrated "by the ridiculousness of farmers giving up their land and practice of farming to earn a living in the dump sites on the outskirts of Manila. Who will be responsible if all the farmers give up their land to be garbage collectors?"

Cissy knows trade issues are not simple, and she takes on more projects every day. First, she is working on a campaign to release the 14 political prisoners arrested in the Hong Kong WTO protests. Then she will import some fair trade chocolate by Valentine's Day.

Coming from a country that employs many factory workers, she is also concerned about her own responsibility as a consumer and citizen. "If some of us take part in the decision-making process of governments or companies, and even of transnational corporations, we may introduce new ideas to the organizational system, and we can change the present situation."

"I think that a focus directly on the global misses the fact that our power as citizens remains to hold our governments accountable for their obligations to our communities and for the decisions that affect them," said May Miller Dawkins, 24, Australia, program coordinator of Oxfam International Youth Parliament.

May is an expert on working with young people concerned with the balance between giving young people the support they need to be effective and the chance to name their priorities. "I think that we can support young people working on trade by bringing them together, providing direct support to their work, skills sharing, and training and opportunities for collective research."

Like many expected, the difficulty of negotiations mean that the WTO will hold another meeting in March 2006. Hopefully, young people will have a presence.

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