World

Major Summit Could Put World's Poorest Inhabitants on Corporate Chopping Block

The ministerial meetings for the WTO must deliver on food security and development for the world's poor.

Businessmen shaking hands in front of a world map.
Photo Credit: Minerva Studio

Last week, 453 civil society groups including trade unions, farmers, environmentalists, public interest groups and development advocates from over 150 countries wrote an urgent letter to members of the WTO to “express extreme alarm about the current situation of the negotiations in the WTO.” This is the largest number of endorsers on a letter about the WTO in the last decade and is a signal of the dire situation. Coordinated by the global Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS) network, the letter is available in English, Spanish and French.

The 10th Ministerial meeting of the WTO, taking place in Nairobi, Kenya on December 15-18, is occurring against a backdrop of accelerated “mega-regional” comprehensive pro-corporate “trade” deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). At the same time, mostly rich countries are also expanding the corporate liberalization model in certain sectors like services (through the proposed Trade in Services Agreement or TiSA), and on goods (through the proposed Information Technology Agreement, or ITA and the Environmental Goods Agreement or EGA).

The WTO meeting is also occurring immediately after a global deal on climate was struck in Paris, which many call a step in the right direction but also acknowledge that it is not nearly ambitious enough to resolve the global climate crisis.

A bit of background: when the Doha Round was launched in 2001, developing countries only agreed to the new round on the basis that it would address the problems of the bad deal that created the existing WTO. Thus the negotiation mandate focused on development, including specific changes proposed to the WTO in what’s called the “Special and Differential Treatment (SDT)” agenda. Most of these proposed changes would give developing countries more flexibility from WTO rules, thus reducing the intrusion of the WTO into their domestic sphere, to enable them to enact development policies in line with their national interests.

Major emphasis was also placed on agriculture, on reducing the subsidies and tariffs used by rich countries, which harm developing country farm production and food security. Poor countries have been fighting to be able to protect their farmers’ livelihoods, food security and rural development from surges in imports of subsidized products, through what’s called the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM). This is because rich countries have still refused to limit either their domestic (point of production) subsidies or the advantages they provide to agribusinesses at the point of export. Developing countries are also fighting to be permitted by WTO rules to invest in their own agricultural production and strengthen domestic food security programs that are currently permitted for rich but not developing countries, not even for Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

Unfortunately, it seems that developed countries never intended to deliver on those development and agricultural reform promises, and have spent the last 14 years of the Doha Round sidelining development issues and instead working to expand the WTO’s neoliberal dictates on services, goods, agriculture and other issues. At the same time, they have taken their corporate wish lists to other forums, concluding the TPP and negotiating the TTIP, TiSA, ITA and EGA mentioned above.

These developments have drastically reduced the leverage developing countries have in the WTO to achieve their developmental agendas. In effect, because rich countries have never agreed to any proposals by developing countries or LDCs, and are now focused on attaining their interests elsewhere, they are now attempting to formally abandon any “development” mandate in the WTO.

This effort, which is the main fight in Nairobi, is even more pernicious because their goal is two-fold: abandon the development mandate, and then open up space to introduce all the new corporate issues they have been negotiating in the TPP, TTIP and other deals into the WTO, including investment, government procurement, disciplining state owned enterprises, and others. Many of these issues are not permitted to be on the agenda in the WTO while Doha is still being negotiated.

After 20 years of the WTO’s corporate model, and the massive displacement of farmers, increased inequality, financial crises and massive climate crises, civil society is clear: the current WTO cannot be allowed to continue in terms of business as usual. There are immediate changes that must be made to the worst aspects of the current WTO. These should be the urgent priority, as a first step towards the transformation of the global trade system towards one that works for sustainable development, jobs, and food sovereignty. Simultaneously, the WTO must not be allowed to expand the scope and breadth of its privatization and deregulation agenda through “new issues.”

In their letter, civil society highlighted that success in Nairobi must mean “[f]ulfilling the development mandate by strengthening SDT for all developing countries, removing WTO obstacles to food security, and operationalizing benefits for the [LDCs].” They specified that the WTO Ministerial will be a failure from a development perspective, unless the agriculture rules are changed in four ways. Poor countries must be allowed to invest in food security through public stockholding programs; rich countries’ domestic supports and export competition policies that hurt poor country markets must be reined in; poor countries must be allowed to protect their farmers from subsidized imports; and cotton subsidies must be slashed, along with other concerns of the Least Developed Countries.

They also highlighted what agenda items must not be incorporated, noting that “introducing a corporate wish list of ‘new issues’ must be off the table at Nairobi,” and that the “WTO Ministerial will be a failure from a development perspective if ‘new issues’ – including under the sneaky rubric of ‘discussions on global value chains (GVCs) or the digital economy’ – are agreed to in Nairobi as part of the post-Ministerial agenda.”

They concluded that: “[f]or the Ministerial to ‘work’ for food, jobs, and sustainable development, the necessary outcome is clear: the transformation of the gross inequities in the global agricultural system must begin, including: removing WTO obstacles to public stockholding for food security; a concrete and workable SSM; and disciplining domestic supports and export competition. Across the WTO, development demands must be met, including the full scope of the G90 proposals for all developing countries, and the operationalizing of the LDC package. The corporate and rich country government agenda of permanently abandoning the development mandate must be forestalled, along with the imposition of a set of already-rejected or ill-defined non-trade ‘new issues’.”

The letter echoes many concerns raised by civil society throughout the history of the WTO, including a letter sent by 345 organizations in July, as well as the OWINFS Turnaround Statement that includes an extensive list of transformative policy changes, and the original Shrink or Sink! manifesto on the Doha Round.

The whole world watched as representatives of nearly every country on the global negotiated a landmark climate deal in Paris last week. Experts have detailed how governments won’t be able to implement many aspects of the deal, however, if agreements like the TPP, TTIP [PDF] or TiSA come into force. Much the same could be said about the WTO. Developing country unity and North-South peoples’ solidarity will be essential to a positive outcome at the WTO. Let’s make sure that the United States, the EU, Japan, Australia and others realize that the imperative of development and public interests must come before corporate profit. A good deal should be struck in Nairobi. But if not, then no deal is better than a bad deal.

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

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