Measuring Success at the WTO in Hong Kong
As the 6th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization gets underway in Hong Kong this week, one wonders what will come of it all. The work agenda is still that of the Doha Development Round begun four years ago.
The press routinely anticipates failure for WTO gatherings, and Hong Kong is no exception. The story lines of stalled talks, stuck negotiations, futile discussions inside the hall and active demonstrations in the streets have become the predictable content of WTO coverage. Every other year, the same things seem to happen. So, why do we bother? And will it be any different this time around?
|"Giving A Voice to the Poor" - M. Kunz
A good many people—government trade representatives, NGO delegates, and activists from around the globe—show up because this is one of those settings in which we do hope to shape a better economy. The current agenda is especially pressing for the millions upon millions of people on the face of the earth who are not doing all that well economically. The current round of negotiations is called a development agenda, and as such is a test of whether or not the 149 nations represented can, in fact, make moves toward trade structures which offer greater economic opportunity and justice.
One of the themes in the air is that no deal is better than a bad deal, and ‘no deal’ is the likely immediate outcome at Hong Kong. Trade round negotiations are routinely drawn out over many years. The last one was concluded a decade ago when the GATT was institutionalized into the WTO. At most, optimists see movement toward accommodations that might allow conclusion of this trade round in the next year or so.
The WTO decision-making process is itself part of what draws out negotiations over such a long period of time. We are not looking here at a majority-rule mechanism. As the Director-General Pascal Lamy noted at the Inaugural Session on December 13, 2005, “The WTO decision-making process, as you all know is, let us say, difficult. The difficulty stems from the fact that all stakeholders—all of you—have decided that you have exactly the same right, no matter how big or small, no matter how powerful or weak, no matter how rich or poor you are: you all have the right to speak, the right to agree, the right to disagree.” The ‘all’ here are, of course, the national governments. Many citizens may not feel well-represented by their governments, and civil society, both inside and outside the hall, carries on the effort to have the voice of the people truly heard in this multinational forum.
But I think the important point is that what goes on here this week, with all its complexities, contradictions and shortcomings, is an exercise in multilateralism. In a world in which multilateralism has been severely undermined in many ways, a successful WTO gathering offers one small opportunity for greater global cooperation. Because of pressing financial crises at the United Nations, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was not able to appear here in Hong Kong, but he did send his remarks, delivered at the inaugural session by UNCTAD Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi. As Annan clearly said, “Development—real gains in real peoples’ lives—remains the primary benchmark for success of the Doha Round.” Later in his remarks, Annan clearly lays out the challenge:
Rich countries will have to reject not just protectionism, but populism, too. They will have to speak honestly to their people about the changing economics of the 21 st century, and about global interdependence and the fact that prosperity elsewhere means prosperity and jobs at home. They will have to help the vulnerable people in their societies with training and other support. And they will have to recognize that a complex network of bilateral and regional trade agreements is not a substitute for an effective multilateral framework.
Finding common ground is, indeed, the agenda. When 149 countries must agree, the process is frustratingly complex and drawn out. Progress is not measurable with any simple yardstick, and we may not know if the movements this week were successful until we look back at this meeting from the perspective of a year or two or even ten years into the future.
Tom Head is Professor of Economics at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon, USA. He serves on the Quaker United Nations Committee-Geneva and is at the Hong Kong WTO Ministerial Conference as a member of the Quaker Peace & Social Witness delegation.
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