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19 March 2001
WTO spokesman answers a critic

Keith Rockwell Director, Information and Media Relations Division

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Dear Sir,

I write in response to the column written by Nick Cohen (March 4, 2001). Not only is the column immensely inaccurate and contradictory, it also presents a point of view that is deeply offensive to developing countries. Mr. Cohen must have been pressed for time when he wrote his column and thus was unable to engage in any serious research.

Mr. Cohen states that the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services will result in Britain having to open services like health, education, energy, film and television to competition from private corporations. It may have escaped Mr. Cohen's notice but competition between private and public services providers already exists in Britain in these sectors and yet the nation seems to be thriving. Whether these sectors are opened up further or new sectors are included in negotiations is entirely up to British government officials. It bears repeating the comments made by Director-General Mike Moore in the Guardian (February 26), and highlighted by Mr. Cohen, that no government need open any service sectors for negotiation, that they may restrict foreign service providers and that they may make demands of foreign providers that they do not make of domestic companies. Moreover, governments may insist on price controls and may make technology transfer a requirement as part of any offer to open its market.

It is difficult to judge whether Mr. Cohen's assertions about the GATS reflect wilful misrepresentation, or only woeful ignorance. I could cite many other examples besides those relating to the false notion that GATS forces nations to privatize social services and make gifts to the multinationals. But just to take one: Mr. Cohen asserts that “rules must not be 'burdensome' or ' unnecessary' or 'restrictive of trade'.” What the text actually says is that rules must be based “on objective and transparent criteria...[and]...not more burdensome than necessary to ensure the quality of the service...and in the case of licensing procedures, not in themselves a restriction on the supply of the service.” I think you will agree that the difference is rather stark.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Mr. Cohen's anti-GATS diatribe, is his very colonial attitude toward the views of developing countries. Is Mr. Cohen aware that developing countries make up their own minds with respect to opening service sectors to foreign competition? Many have opened their markets to foreign providers of banking, insurance and telecoms services because they want to attract much-needed expertise and foreign investment. But currently, not a single developing country has started or even discussed starting, negotiations to open its markets to foreign providers of health or education services. Apparently, Mr. Cohen believes countries like India, Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia or Tanzania are incapable of defending their interests or to realise what is best for them in terms of the pace and scope of market opening. I invite him to Geneva where he will learn otherwise.

There is one element of the column with which I agree, it is Mr. Cohen's assertion that he is “not up to date.”