Thursday, September 18, 2003

Cancún: The real losers are the poor

Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi, in the International Herald Tribune edition of 18 September 2003, wrote that the future of trade issues of potential benefit to developing countries such as market-opening in manufactured products, services and agriculture, are uncertain because of lack of agreement at Cancun. He added that he would immediately look for ways to move the WTO process forward.

Text of the article

CANCÚN, Mexico: The disappointing ministerial conference that concluded here on Sunday will have many ramifications, but sadly the most significant of them will be its impact on poor countries.

Two years ago, in the Qatari capital, trade ministers agreed to begin global trade negotiations driven by what is known as the Doha Development Agenda, which put the question of development at its core. It is widely acknowledged today that trade is a vitally important element in any program for development, as it can deliver benefits to developing countries worth many times more than all the development aid they receive.

Opening markets for trade in manufactured products, services and agriculture can provide the key for global economic growth and development. Unquestionably, we will need a balanced outcome to this round of negotiations. At the same time it is essential that the negotiations deliver more to developing countries than they have received from trade rounds in the past.

Already we have recorded some benefits for these countries. In the last several months, we have achieved significant progress both in Geneva and here in Cancún. We reached a historic agreement last month on access to essential medicines for the poorest countries and we have agreed on 28 proposals that would extend special and differential treatment to developing countries.

An initiative to phase out cotton subsidies was advanced and indeed widely supported at the ministerial conference in Cancún. For the first time, the poorest countries in the world actively took part in the negotiations and succeeded in placing their interests on the trade agenda. The proposal for improving the situation of cotton farmers in West Africa did not go as far as governments in that region wanted, but the fact remains that this issue was on the agenda, and once something is on the agenda it can be improved upon.

The same goes for the progress that was made here on agriculture. Many developing countries thought the work done here had moved the negotiations in a very positive direction. Not as far as they wanted perhaps, but in a system when all decisions are taken by consensus members must be realistic about the political concerns of their trading partners.

Now, because ministers could not agree in Cancún on the future agenda, the future of many of these issues is uncertain. For this reason, and others, the outcome of this ministerial conference is a great disappointment. Ministers could not agree on whether to launch negotiations on the so-called “Singapore” issues of trade and investment, trade and competition, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation. The level of political sensitivity varies widely on these issues, but members could not agree on any of them.

In the end the ministers could not summon the necessary flexibility and political will to bridge the gaps that separated them. Sadly, those that will suffer the most for their inability to compromise are the poorest countries among us. A more open and equitable trading system would provide them with an important tool in alleviating poverty and raising their levels of economic development.

If we are to preserve what we have already achieved, build on these achievements and resuscitate these negotiations, ministers will have to intensify their efforts at finding solutions to the problems they could not overcome in Cancún.

We may have to learn the Cancún lesson that when participants take too long to unveil their true positions, compromise becomes even more difficult to achieve. We may also need to work closely with groups of countries and address their concerns earlier to prevent the unnecessary hardening of positions that complicates the decision-making process at ministerial conferences.

For my part, I intend to immediately begin to look for ways in which to move this process forward. This round is too important for all of us to allow this setback to keep us from our objective — an ambitious and balanced round that delivers better market access and more equitable rules for all our member governments and for the people they represent.