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The fifth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation took place in the Mexican city of Cancun between 11-14 September as a follow-up to the Doha Development Round in 2001 where new negotiating mandates were awarded by Ministers to the WTO administration that placed development issues, especially the interests of the less developed countries, at the heart of the WTO work.

These mandates inaugurated a three-year negotiation period where progress was expected to be made on the following issues : agriculture, services, implementation, industrial goods, new issues, trade and environment and drugs, patents and public health. The Cancun conference was therefore intended to gauge the progress made in the negotiations pursuant to the mandates entered into the covering the above subjects.

It is within the context of international efforts to set the scene to the Cancun Conference by highlighting the progress that has been made since Doha and to indicate what further progress should be made to successfully complete the negotiations entered into over the next two years that the seminar on " Economic Liberalization and the Developing World " was organised in Paris on September 5 by the Kuwaiti-based Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah Foundation.

In his introductory remarks at the conference held at the prestigious Pavilion Dauphine in Paris, the Foundation's Vice President, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Sabah said : " since its establishment, the Foundation has been serving many causes and services that are not confined to any geographical location or a specific cause…By sponsoring this conference, the foundation hopes to move towards macro endeavours which address the root causes of many of humanity's problems and grievances. "

The vice president noted that while his organisation continues its efforts to provide assistance in education and health, among others, it now wishes to " revamp the world's efforts to reduce, if not eradicate, the causes of the suffering of these poor people. Along these lines, the Foundation believes in helping developing countries to achieve better living standards which is absolutely necessary, if not urgent. This of course is the major challenge. In this respect one of the Foundation's aims in sponsoring this conference is based on the critical role trade plays in our world in a global sense. "

" There is no doubt that trade affects the livelihood of everyone, critically in developing countries which stand to benefit significantly more than any other countries from economic liberalisation. Obviously, this requires developing countries to adopt the right framework, and to back this up with solid determination. What is needed are reforms from within developing countries and the adoption of a bottom-up modus operandi inorder to achieve a manageable set of targets within the capability of their resources”

Drawing parallels from his country Kuwait, Sheikh Al-Sabah lamented that " it is easy to note that although rich economically in hydro carbons, its economic power base can be fundamentally influenced in every other respect by successfully pursuing effective trading policies ; it is therefore vital that a country such as mine should adopt a pro-active approach in reforming their economies before it is induced to do so externally. "

Sheikh Abdullah noted that he saw his Foundation's role, as part of civil society in the developing world , as mainly supporting constructive debate and interaction on issues that are vital, " not only to our region, but to the global community at large. For this reason, and in pursuit of this new additional strategic change, the Foundation took the initiative to organise this conference, thus helping to enhance the dialogue and intellectual understanding of the issues related to economic liberalisation and the developing world. "

British Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, one of the keynote speakers, described the Cancun conference as a key milestone in the Doha development agenda. The British Minister, who started to speak in French but quickly changed to English, outlined what she called her aspirations for Cancun in the following way : " Cancun is neither the begining of this round of negotiations nor the end, but is an important mid-point in the round. And it is time for political leaders from all countries to prove that there really is a development round. We need to show big ambition if we are to achieve big results ".

Hewitt lamented that the road from the Dowa round has been long and winding " with too many deadlines missed " and cynicism among member states of the developing world growing. And although she said she is determined to push forward the idea that the world trade system is based on a fundamental principle of equality, she was quick to admit : " the reality is, for too long, the richer countries of the world dictated the terms of trade…we preach free trade at home and practice protectionism abroad ".

Hewitt expressed hope that despite the many disagreements on many technical issues, " a consensus is beginning to grow that trade and trading partnerships between countries can help to make our world more secure and more just."

French Foreign Trade Minister François Loos, in a key note speech read by his representative, appeared even more forthright when he called for a fair playing ground for all members of the World Trade Organisation in all aspects of international trade, especially those of the less developed countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

With this objective, he says, agricultural produce in Africa, which has been the worst victim of the existing unfair deal, may have a chance of surviving as this would make African agricultural and manufactured exports more accessible to markets in the developed countries. " For this to happen, the developed countries, and also the big agricultural produce exporting countries, should à priori unilaterally open their markets to Africa's exports, " said Loos.

Proping up the case for fair trade, Abdul Rahman Bin Hamad Al-Attiya, Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, called for constructive negotiations, especially on the sub-regional level in the efforts to find a balance on the playing field of international trade. But although, developing countries, he said, " were anticipating at the Doha conference that negotiations would lead to the fulfilment of the obligations which would increase growth rates, yet there was a common feeling that development needs are being ignored. "

The GCC secretary general admitted that the creation of the free trade area in their region in march 1998, establishing, among other things, a common market, put member countries of the WTO in that region in a better position to compete in international trade.

Focusing more or less on the just released World Economic Prospects Report for 2004, the las t Key note speaker, Dr Carlos Alberto Primo Braga, Senior Advisor on International Trade, The World Bank, said : " The bottom line is that there are good news in the report for our expectations in the world economy even though there is uncertainty particularly related to the situation in Iraq and the war against terrorism. But we are still optimistic about the prospects for the world economy and that is one reason to put so much emphasis on structural reforms…So those are our forecasts at this point in time as you can see both in the case of high-income economies and with respect to developing economies we expect 2004 to bring us back to growth levels similar to those we had before September 11. "

Dr Primo Braga however admitted that roughly half of the developing countries of the world are still to benefit from international trade and that agricultural protectionism in rich countries remains high thus making it difficult for these poor countries to catch up. The World Bank expert advocated pro-poor country policies in agriculture-such as increasing transparency, slashing tariffs and having rich countries taking the lead-as the way forward, for as he put it, " vision without implementation is hallucination.

" It is against this background that we have to ask what can we do through the Trade Agenda, and particularly the Doha Agenda that can make the difference for the poor ", said Dr Primo Braga.

Using slides to illustrate his points, the World Bank Trade Policy Advisor noted that one of the good news is that most regions are going to achieve one of the many millennium development goals- this one with respect to poverty.

" The bottom line is that developing countries, as was mentioned, have made significant progress in terms of their policy regime, and in terms of integration with the world economy, over the last twenty years, but a good agreement in the Doha Round can have a significant impact, particularly from the point of view of poverty alleviation ",

Fielding a question from the audience on the burning issue of the negative impact of trade on the environment, former WTO director general Mike Moore said there exists in that world body a structure committed to strike a balance between these two variables (trade & environment) and that " there is great resistance to allowing or regarding the WTO as the organisation of last resort for the environment or labour or human rights or indigenous rights …and this is where there is a clash. "

Moore, who turned out to be the Guest Speaker at the conference warned against the idea of setting up environmental regimes that would punish poor countries, adding that many developing countries are often very suspicious of rich white countries and their NGOs who come down and tell them what to do about trade and environmental protection.