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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 28

The WTO, Governments and People’s Movements

Monday 2 July 2007, by Bharat Dogra


It is widely believed that this year some important agreements are likely to be reached in the so-called Doha Development Round of WTO (World Trade Organisation) negotiations. However, as things stand today the prospects of the developing countries appear to be quite dim in terms of protecting their interests or making any gains. It is being increasingly said that this so-called development round offered hardly any development gains to poor and developing countries and in fact doesn’t deserve to be called a development round. Some of the mostly deeply felt concerns of the developing countries have not been satisfactorily addressed yet, while at the same time some threats posed to their economy have been aggravated.

Keeping in view these harsh realities there is need for great alertness, mobilisation and unity on the part of governments and people’s movements in developing countries to protect the interests of their people. It is particularly important that common people here are well-informed at the right time about the decisions likely to be taken at the WTO talks which are likely to have a significant impact on their lives and livelihoods.

Developing countries and their farmers have long argued that rich countries use high levels of farm subsidies in such a way that many of their significant farm products can be sold in the international market at a cheap rate, and hence they use their economic might to dominate the world market for several important farm products. They have used their influence in the WTO to force the developing countries to remove quantitative restrictions and to reduce import tariffs significantly, so that the impact on the livelihood of their farmers is now much worse than before. Hence there has been much talk of the developed countries being asked to reduce their subsidies, but the impression generally has been that even if one kind of subsidy is reduced another kind of subsidy is increased, so that their domination of the international market and the highly adverse impact on the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries continues.

In this situation developing countries have continued to demand real decreases in the rich countries’ farm subsidies. In addition they have asked for certain products which are vital to livelihoods and food security to be designated ‘Special Products’ (SP) that can be exempted from tariff liberalisation. Similarly at the time of the surge of farms imports they have asked for ‘special safeguard mechanisms’ which can enable them to increase tariffs or adopt other measures. It is not yet known how effective these can be and in how limited a way these protective devices will be permitted by the hard bargaining developed countries, but the broad view appears to be that in the emerging trade regime the peasants of the developing world still remain highly vulnerable to pressures and uncertainties of world trade. Of course at least some farming/agribusiness interests will also benefit from farm exports to developed countries, but least likely to benefit are small peasants who will face the pressure of cheap farm imports and other trade-related vulnerabilities.

In addition the issues of the seed rights of farmers being threatened and many people in developing countries being denied access to higher priced medicines due to WTO-related changes in patent laws also continue to be a cause of serious concern. After the Hong Kong Ministerial held in December 2005, the threats relating to industrial and services sector have actually increased. As a result of the decisions taken here, the flexibility available earlier to the developing countries in liberalising their industries and services sector has actually decreased and the threat of more rapid and disruptive changes in these sectors has increased. Due to the changes in the area of NAMA (non-agricultural market access), it is likely that now the path has been cleared for higher and more comprehensive reductions in industrial tariffs. This will disrupt industries and many workers will lose their jobs.

All these are very important issues and as we move towards a critical period when important decisions are likely to be reached, there is well-justified concern that again agreements that have adverse impacts on the lives and livelihoods of people will be taken without people even being adequately aware of what is happening. This has happened before, particularly in the early days of the WTO when, among other things, quantitative restrictions on imports were removed and important changes in patent laws were foisted.

In such a critical situation, what should be the strategy of the developing countries, particularly big and important countries like India which should play a leadership role among the developing countries? To justify such a leadership role, however, there should be dedication to the real concerns of all poor and developing countries and attempts being made by the rich countries to co-opt important developing countries like India and Brazil should be resisted.

IT is also important not only for people’s movements and voluntary organisations but also for the government to make sincere and adequate efforts to provide as much accurate information as possible to common people regarding what is being negotiated, what is the stand of the government, what are non-negotiable for the government (being the most essential interests of the people which cannot be sacrificed no matter what the pressures). It is with such a transparency that negotiations should proceed.

One reason why there are a lot of conflicting opinions and confusion regarding strategy is that the difference in the positions taken by the governments and people’s movements is not adequately appreciated. It is actually quite clear that the governments of the developing countries, even when their sincerity to protect the concerns of their people is not in doubt, have to function within certain limitations. It is well known that several agreements and decisions already reached at the WTO, or in the Uruguay Round are not in the interests of the common people of the developing countries. Broadly speaking these are not in the interests of justice. Yet governments unwisely agreed to these earlier without much resistance and are now obliged to work within the limitations of these agreements and try to make the best of a bad situation by ensuring that further interests of the poor are not sacrificed and some protective decisions are also retained.

However, it is neither necessary nor desirable for people’s movements to present their perspective or frame their demands within the limits of the agreements and decisions already reached. Their commitment should be only to the people they represent. They are near to the people, they have a better understanding of the real problems faced by the people, the setbacks suffered by them as a result of the decisions taken in distant places. If agreements already reached are unacceptable to their people and continue to cause serious problems to them, they should of course feel free to oppose such decisions. Their demands and their perspective should present the real needs and aspirations of their problems.

To give an example, quantitative restrictions on imports have already been removed. So the government in all likelihood will not ask for quantitative restrictions on imports to be re-introduced even though it may feel the need for the same. But the people’s movements can articulate this need loud and clear, and should certainly do so. The ethical basis for this is particularly strong as in most places these decisions affecting the lives of people were taken without people being consulted at all regarding these changes.

The government of the day looks at negotiations within the paradigm of development that it is implementing. But sincere people’s movements are dedicated to the struggles for creating a better world. For them it is of even greater concern that when they succeed in implementing their ideas for a better world, whether the international trade agreements reached now will prove a hurdle for them. For example, if they distribute land to the landless on a large scale and want to help these new farmers in a big way, will WTO rules create a problem for them? Or if in the interests of food safety they want to ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or if they want to promote organic farming based on traditional seeds of farming community, will the WTO laws pose a problem for them? So the people’s movement should speak increasingly about WTO agreements and decisions in the context of the better, more equal and sustainable world they want to create, with special emphasis on a world of food security where no one is hungry.

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