If WTO negotiations require hard choices,churches say: choose justice

Original Publication Date: 
8 December, 2005

If you only had one choice, what would you choose: Water? Food? Life-saving medicine?

An impossible decision, most would say. But that is, essentially, what developing countries must do as they prepare for the World Trade Organization's (WTO) 6th Ministerial Conference, 13-18 December in Hong Kong.

Despite its early billing as the 'development round' of trade negotiations that would address the needs of the millions of people who live in poverty, the ministerial conference's draft agreements are forcing developing countries to make priorities among the essential elements of life, such as water (agreement on services), life-saving drugs (TRIPS), and food (agreement on agriculture).

"It's the same story all over again," says Rusa Jeremic, program coordinator for KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives and member of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance's trade strategy group. "The WTO Ministerial Meeting is being used as way to pry open services for privatization, assure markets for big Northern agri-business and open the door to the de-industrialization of the Global South through the removal of industrial tariffs."

Amidst predictions of bad deals on essential medicines and deadlock on key development issues, churches and Christian organizations are closely monitoring the process. Along with a strong civil society movement and other faith-based groups, participating organizations in the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance have been active for months to demand that government leaders live up to their promises to combat poverty and put into place agreements that bring justice and sustainability into global trade.

"Many government and economic leaders are warning of 'failed' negotiations as the WTO conference nears," states Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. "But the real failure is the lack of political will to make it possible for people in poverty to benefit from just rules in trade. People of faith are among the activists who demand that trade work for the well-being of all, rather than continue to serve only the rich and powerful."

Negotiations fall far short of promises

At the WTO's last Ministerial in Cancun in 2003, advocates of trade liberalization spoke loudly of the current Doha Round's potential to improve the situation for millions of the world's poor. The World Bank estimated that two-thirds of the gains from this round of trade negotiations would go to developing countries through over $500 billion in increased income. The UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) coordinator talked of lifting 144 million people out of poverty.

Two years on, these estimates have been drastically reduced. Rich countries are now expected to get over 80% of the benefits and at best, income for the developing world is now estimated at $16 billion according to the World Bank. This is less than a penny per person per day. About 6 million people may now see their income rise above $2 per day but this is only a reduction of 0.3% in the number of people living in poverty around the world.

These marginal economic gains come at considerable economic, political and social costs. Governments, particularly those of developing countries, have lost space to define their own policy to promote their people's best interests. They have lost tariff revenues, resulting in reduced capacity to deliver public services, incurred higher administrative costs to comply with new rules and face increased costs for patented products.

WTO commitment to development is"empty rhetoric"

The Doha Round of negotiations was supposed to address the needs of developing countries, in particular in agriculture and the capacity of developing countries to implement WTO agreements.

The agreement that set up the WTO in the early 1990s is widely acknowledged as unbalanced, particularly because it included an agreement on services against developing country wishes and did not strongly address agriculture, the most important sector for developing countries. The principle of special and differential treatment for developing countries in implementing agreements has also long been accepted.

Yet the draft that has been proposed for Hong Kong contains a well-developed text on further liberalization in services and a weak and undefined report on agriculture. Significant special and differential treatment measures remain sidelined. There has been recent spin about a 'development package' coming out of Hong Kong, but many of the proposed elements of this package are themselves deeply flawed. The effort seems to be mere window dressing to hide the gains for powerful economies in the current agreements..

"The power brokers within the WTO think that clever packaging of bad deals might convince the world's people that the decisions to be made in Hong Kong are really in their favor and promote development," Hartke observed.

"But the threatened livelihoods of millions and the real life injustices that will continue to be perpetuated by their 'deals' are more than enough to prove the lack of political will for real progress in fulfilling the promise of 'trade for development'".

Indicative of the bad deals in this development package, WTO members on 6 December approved changes to the intellectual property agreement (TRIPS) making permanent a 2003 decision which supposedly allowed the production and export of generic medicines. In reality the 'August 30th decision', according to M