It was a struggle until the very end, until the last minutes.
As daylight appeared through the glass walls of the convention centre, I realized that the moment of truth was coming closer. We were in a make or break situation. The last hours of meetings were incredibly intense. The frustration at revisiting some issues for the fiftieth time is kept in check. It’s too easy now to lose one’s temper, to shift everything in reverse with the wrong word. It’s like keeping your balance on a small boat, trying to reach the other side of the river in the midst of the storm.
Balance is key for the dynamics of this group of 30 Ministers, representative of the many WTO sensitivities: two-thirds developing countries, least-developed, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Small Economies… but only three women ministers. I guess that this is the only balance we should improve!
Went back to the hotel for just two or three hours of sleep — but then it’s one of those moments when you go to bed, but your mind is working at such speed that it is difficult to fall asleep. Every ten minutes the phone rings, decisions to take, back to the centre. For some days we have been building what seems to be a castle of cards. Keeping a cool head in the final hours of the conference is essential to ensure that the castle does not crumble in the last minutes. When ministers leave at 7:00 am, John Tsang, the Chairman, and I still have to finalise the text that will be discussed by all members in the afternoon. Better not get the word and the comma wrong!
It was anything but a smooth afternoon. Problems, concerns of different ministers being channelled to my office, more meetings, phone calls. The last hours were like an emergency room in a hospital. Good thing that my staff, in spite of working under tremendous pressure, kept cool, with team spirit. We knew we could pull this off, but as a famous baseball player once said “it ain’t over till it’s over”. Delegates are queuing by the documentation centre to get the last draft of our work this week. Not exactly my idea of a bestseller, but judging from the excitement out there, it is almost as if it was the latest Harry Potter! Maybe an idea for the next book: “Hogwarts: the school of trade wizards?”
Back into another meeting with the heads of delegations. One after another they remind us we still have a lot of work to do, but they accept the text. The relief in the room is palpable. Everyone shares the sense we’ve succeeded, not completely... but with an impetus to finish the Round in 2006. At the plenary session of all Members that follows, the text is presented for final approval: the sound of the gavel followed by the words of the Chairman “so agreed” are music to my ears. Applauds fuse. It’s amazing! They all have been fighting their cases against one another during 100 hours, and they are united during one minute — but that is the crucial one. At the news conference the journalists pepper me with questions, the last trial in this gruelling week. But even they share our excitement at the result of these six days. I will tell them that when I came to Hong Kong, I was fully awake and the negotiations were half-asleep; tonight I am half-asleep but the good news is that the negotiations are now fully awake !
Tonight, it’s the flow of adrenaline that will delay my sleep. But I cannot deny I am happy. It’s been an incredible week in a fabulous city whose team ... John Tsang, the organizing committee, volunteers, and many others working out of the spotlight have done an impeccable work. I will bring vivid memories of them all with me to Geneva. Hosting the WTO must have been like having visitors for the weekend. They bring happiness when they arrive and peace when they leave.
That’s my season’s greeting to my friends in Hong Kong, and to you: Merry Christmas, Peace and goodwill to all !
This will be the last of my diary entries from Hong Kong, but we’re far from finished with the Round. Au revoir, see you later.
It would be nice to get some fresh air, walk along the waterfront. A little more than 24 hours to go before the end of the conference. We're all tired, mentally and physically. It's like the last leg of a marathon, your body is telling you the finish line is too far, your mind is driving you to the end. Someone once told me that running is 80% physical ... and 80% mental. Trade negotiations are more mental than physical, but if you have to sit and focus on a negotiation for long hours, your body will also take a toll.
The media are saying we're having a tough time to reach an agreement — they don't know half of it, how tough it is. The last debate among Ministers went on for 10 hours. We were up the whole night discussing, trying to put together a new compromise. Upwards. I have to admit there are moments when it seems we're just not getting there. I know I must have my head clear at such moments, to keep myself and everyone else focused on the real finish line — the end of the Round in 2006. But for now, all of our energy (or what is left of it) must be devoted to making progress over the next few hours.
I browse through the press clipping and see a few pieces on this diary — quite funny to see things written here getting published in the press ! Talking of reactions, I want to thank those of you who have sent messages of encouragement, from places like Morocco, Turkey, Cyprus, Canada, China and also from WTO Secretariat staff who stayed back in Geneva. As I said yesterday, I really wish I had the time to send you all personal messages and replies, but I hope you understand my time constraints these days. I'll try to do it when I get back to Geneva.
Someone wrote in to ask where my bananas come from — clever question, given that trade in bananas is a hot issue in the WTO and that I must remain impartial. I've asked around where the bananas that we eat here at the convention centre come from, and I have been told they come from anywhere in the world, because trade in Hong Kong is so open, but that these most likely come from the Philippines at this time year. All I can add is a thank you to banana growers everywhere for this great product — portable, self-contained, elegantly designed and a great tonic.
The WTO photographer showed us a picture of a very cute baby ! I asked our webmaster to place the picture in the website, together with my message. The baby is Maria-Gloria Distefano, 2.5 years old and she is attending the conference with her mother, a delegate from Luxembourg. What a beautiful touch to the otherwise boring grey-suit ambience of our meetings — this must be what people call “born and raised trade negotiator” !
My schedule today is driven by the end-phase of the negotiations. Talking to regional coordinators, delegations, Secretariat experts. By two o'clock in the afternoon the new text we worked out last night is being distributed to the delegations. Quite a few changes for them to absorb .... before we re-convene this evening in the “fish bowl”. We need to prepare the last version before the curtain drops tomorrow. And it better be a good result, if we want to maintain the credibility of the 150 Ministers, delegates, media, NGOs who were meeting during an entire week miles away from their homes.
I wanted to say a word about the people who are working with me here in Hong Kong. They are a dedicated and professional lot from all continents, staying up at all hours, keeping their heads down and minds focused. Some of them work closer to me, others are specialists — lawyers, economists, interacting with delegations on very technical issues, or are hidden in interpreters' booths, translation offices, revising, preparing, distributing documents, organizing logistics, talking to the press and NGOs, not to forget our people who stayed back in Geneva to make sure things keep running in our headquarters. There has been a great amount of team work, together with the very efficient Hong Kong staff. A big thank you to all of them (I realised they also read this blog...).
Time to go into the meeting of the HoDs (Heads of Delegation) — that is, a meeting with all Ministers in this conference. Then a session that will surely last all night long — the last one. Anyone watching us from outside must think this is crazy. Maybe it is, but we have not yet found an alternative way to run these negotiations. I'll have to think about it. We are not yet done here but I can't help thinking of the amount of work that awaits us next year. Remember, end of the round is 2006.
PS (confidential): at home, I eat fair trade bananas. Please do not disclose. I have to remain neutral.
The difficult part begins but all options are open.
It's dark when I wake up and day when I go to bed. It has been almost a week that I am here in Hong Kong and I have not seen much of the city, besides the convention centre and sporadically the hotel. But occasionally during the day, as I puff one of my rare cigars, I catch a glimpse of the harbour and of that boat I mentioned earlier with the blue sails. It strikes me now that it's a bit like our conscience. The message painted on the sails today in big white letters reads: “when will the poor start getting richer?” Pretty direct message for us all, as we continue on the treadmill of meetings. True, trade can contribute to alleviate poverty, but — and this is a big BUT — it is only one of the pieces of the puzzle.
My poor staff are looking at me more and more with eyes that ask: when will we get some sleep?
The answer I have to both of these questions — the one on the boat and the one from my staff — is: this depends on even more work. Any result we obtain will be the result of efforts, and will be more potent than words. As for lack of sleep, just last night we consumed 320 cups of coffee here in the office ! Not bad for the exports of developing countries. Prices are low but the volume is on the rise...
This day is a gruelling series of encounters for all of us locked in these negotiations, all conscious that time is slipping by and people — Ministers, delegates, NGOs, the press — are getting anxious.
I look at my calendar and there is a long list of groups to meet within the next few hours. I can see why many people are puzzled by this organization. There's the G20, the G6, the G10, the G90, and now the G110, G-33, the Cairns Group, the Friends of Fish, the Quad, and the Very Close Friends of Services. Any of these groups can include the most amazing diversity of countries, which, depending on the area, may be united or on completely opposite sides. When I first landed in the WTO world — and I guess to most people outside — all of these acronyms and groups and unintelligible words can look like an attempt to disguise something. And yet these are all tools to try to make negotiations advance. They advance at a geological pace, but with no country left behind. So patience is not a virtue, it's a necessity.
You must be thinking: these people spend their days and nights in meetings. What are all of these meetings about ? Think about it as a big construction that we are building, made of thousands of bricks, and 150 people laying the bricks. Clearly, before you start putting things together, you need to discuss the plan, who does what when and what the end-result will be like. Not easy, often discouraging. Take yesterday: we spent more than three hours discussing the package of trade measures for the world's poorest countries, which includes the elimination of export subsidies on agriculture and is meant to address the problem of African cotton-producers.
Then more meetings with some of the Ministers who are helping to crack some difficult nuts, complicated issues with deep political implications.
The text of the Declaration is coming together on a few points, though the sleepless nights are taking a toll on everyone's good humor. News conferences being given by Ministers show people with red eyes, under pressure. Even my staff is dozing off at meetings or trying to get a few minutes of sleep in the corridors. As any marathon runner knows, it is very important to keep the necessary energy for the last lap !
I take a quick look outside, and there goes that boat again with the blue sails. The Korean farmers are probably out in the streets as well. It's going to be another long night. I have this constant thought in the back of my mind: whatever comes out of this conference, there has to be something for everybody so we all have to move.
A long night of talks, difficult, tense for the Ministers, and also for us, the brokers, who have to understand each and every position in order to midwife compromises that work. As I leave the conference centre, some delegates are already arriving for the Saturday sessions. I feel like a mole coming out of its dark hole. Going to the hotel to get some rest now. I have to remember I must refill the batteries of my cellphone. I'll be back in just two hours. The revised compromise is going out. On Saturday the die will be cast.
Conference mid-point, some small and volatile progress, and still too much to do.
Hi — and thank you to those of you who took the time to send comments on this diary. Great to know someone is reading this! I also got some interesting questions — hope to have the time to do an on-line chat next year. The sun is shining again in HK this morning — good omen for what will be another long day? We’re at the mid-point of the Conference and the path ahead can either become a slippery slope or a careful climb upward. I push, as I should, for the latter, but I also think we should now be asking ourselves: can we move 149 Members in the same direction? Listening to some of the Minister’s statements throughout the day I’m reminded of how many people in the world are watching us .... so many have a stake in the outcome of this Conference. This morning I feel more than ever the need for the work to begin in earnest.
Delegates from the 49 poorest countries are gathering to meet with me. I know they are expecting to hear what I and the other Members will do about the issues they care about. They are keen to get access to rich countries’ markets for their products — free of barriers. Some of them remind me that they represent only a tiny fraction of world trade, less than 1%, they cannot be seen as a threat to anyone — do they have any chance? I see my task as ensuring that their voices are heard and their points taken into account.
Straight to a big meeting with the African Group. More than 300 delegates. They are determined that nobody should forget that this is meant to be a development Round. In all these discussions we’re inching upward towards something concrete.... some words that we can put down on paper and begin to see a bit — a very little bit — of convergence. It’s a fascinating process, almost magical at times, but always excruciating for everyone involved .... especially when you rarely get any sleep. But I must confess that seeing just a sparkle of what could become a big light, a textual agreement, is worth every minute of hard work.
Next meeting: the delegation of Ukraine. The Minister makes it a point to tell me that membership of the WTO is his government’s top priority and that everything is being done so it can occur next year. New members coming to the WTO — Saudi Arabia officially joined the organization just before this conference, on December 11, bringing the total membership to 149. There are some 30 countries in the line-up for membership. Contradictions surface very clearly during these big events: while some out there are shouting “sink the WTO!”, others, notably poorer countries, are doing everything they can to get in.
A rare moment of ease during this tough day — I’m coming out of the pressure cooker for a few minutes to attend the signing ceremony for the accession of Tonga to the WTO..... a pretty joyous occasion for this island country of 112,000 people. Tonga, the “Friendy Island”, is a “milestone” country, positioned next to the international date line — and it has a milestone place in the WTO — it will become the organization’s 150th member. Mâloh y léléi!
Back to work, although it’s already dark, many people going out for dinner. Tough luck for me and Secretariat staff. We have to stay on and prepare for the difficult task of getting everyone to agree on mapping out areas of progress — however small. Back into the “fish-bowl” for tough negotiations. Long hours, desperately trying to make people focus, I’m not allowed a moment of distraction now. I feel calm nonetheless because I’m confident that what we’re shaping has come from the bottom up, from the Members, developed and developing, small island countries, from powers like US, EU, China, India and Brazil, and also from the group of the poorest countries, who are perhaps the most eloquent of all on why we must not fail. Different interests, a myriad of signals and signs to decipher, to make sense of, before stealing a little sleep. I’m reminded of a Chinese proverb: no wind, no waves. Something is happening. A demain!
PS. I hope I have some time to shop for Christmas presents when the Conference is over.
Bonjour ... welcome to my second long day (and night) at the Ministerial. My schedule is speeding up with the pace of talks. Meeting after meeting, going from one place to the other. Still, I found a moment to catch a glimpse of the media coverage from yesterday and saw they liked the magic wand I used at the opening ceremony. It was in fact given to me in Geneva by one of my secretaries — it's a plastic toy, and it certainly doesn't work! The only magic, in the WTO, is the rare moment of consensus — which only happens as a result of a lot of work. At any rate, I think sometimes you have to use a graphic trick to get people's attention. It surely worked when I said at Cancun that the WTO process of ministerial meetings is medieval...
The setting for this Conference is closer to science fiction. Delegates seem to glide through the air from one level to another in this gigantic capsule of glass and steel, gazing out at a harbour filled with every conceivable form of vessel — cargos, tankers, cruisers, fishing boats — all somehow related to trade. The view from my office into the harbour and the constant transit of ships is fantastic — it's as if I was constantly reminded of the concreteness of these negotiations. If there is ever to be a monument to the benefits of trade, it will surely be raised in Hong Kong.
But enough reverie. The day starts early with my deputies and my staff, before the first meeting with our chairman John Tsang, the three vice-chairs and the Ministers helping him reach out as “friends”. These people are key to keeping all of our Members involved in the negotiating process. My part in keeping the discussions transparent will be to meet throughout the day with individual ministers and groups to share information and keep everything moving forward — a long agenda of meetings, some of them every half hour, without interruption. Sometimes I feel like a shepherd, sometimes like a nurse, or a mid-wife, trying to help Members in a difficult delivery....
B+B for lunch (I mean bread and bananas, of course). On the way for more meetings, I watch the policemen bobbing in their tiny boats on the choppy waters around the convention center. Who are they protecting? I would like to think that they are protecting all of us who have a stake in this conference, the demonstrators outside, the delegates and NGOs inside — everyone — to keep the debate we're engaged in as civilized and productive as possible.
The evening plenary gave us good cause to reflect on the particular plight of some of our developing and poorest members. They talked to us about the importance of cotton and bananas for their economies. The Minister of Chad made a short and very touching appeal for progress in the cotton issue. She spoke of misery and poverty, of human dignity and cooperation. The WTO is about much more than trade — in fact, it is trade that has to do with much more than tariffs and formulae: it connects with people. What those countries were really saying, when they talked about cotton and bananas, is that we MUST deal with their concerns as part of any effort to make trade fair.
The day ended with more consultations, going into the night. I'll go back to the hotel now (3:00 am), try to get a few hours of sleep, and prepare for Thursday (6:00 am). It will be a key day — the middle point of the conference.
Hi, or Nei Ho as they say here in Cantonese or Nin Hau in Mandarin.
Today is THE day: opening of the conference. Up early and a quick jog to prepare for the first long day. The news reports on TV show me dashing around all day yesterday meeting various groups. I know it was worth it. But today it’s time to focus on official business as delegations continue to arrive.
I don’t think it's just the jet lag that makes me feel the day is moving on fast forward, and here I am sitting with representatives of the G20, this new force in the multilateral system which includes Brazil, India, China and other developing countries. Their main worry is to ensure cuts to agricultural subsidies which distort trade. We have already moved a long way on this issue since we launched the talks in 2001. Next the Ministers from the Caribbean region tell me about their concerns on small economies and islands; they argue that a one-size-fits-all WTO is not possible. Afterwards, sitting in my office for a quick cup of coffee before the next step, I spot a boat with a big “For when trade justice?” painted on the sails. But, whose trade justice?
By now I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, like a runner waiting for the starting gun. I’m told there are about 11,000 men and women gathering for the opening ceremony and I remind myself that is still less than for the New York marathon. It is an impressive sea of colours as delegates stand at the opening. My main message to delegates was that we do not have a magic wand to solve our difficulties: only boldness and courage. Just as I was saying that the WTO is a pretty democratic institution, a group of NGOs started chanting anti-WTO slogans in the middle of the ceremony while a group of Korean farmers jumped into the sea to swim towards the conference centre.... any doubts about the openness of the organization? I could not stop thinking of the many contradictions around us: two thirds of the delegates inside the building want a more open trade in agriculture while the many farmers protesting in the streets and grabbing news headlines demand exactly the contrary: a closure of the markets to agricultural products. The sails of the boat come back to my mind, whose trade justice? Part of the gulf which exists in public perception over what the WTO is and is not. Clearly there is much room for improvements in communication.
This is what I try at my first press conference. Over 3000 journalists around, hungry for news. As I told them, I think we can make a step forward in Hong Kong, provided Ministers are ready to take some risks. And this is what I tell a group of Ministers I meet in the evening. Will they do it? Stay tuned.
Greetings. Loads of bread and bananas already stocked to keep me going through the week. I guess I won’t have too much time but I thought I would keep you posted on what goes on each day so that you get a flavour.
The official programme of the Conference does not start until tomorrow so today was a day for outreach to the trade community. The tone and rhythm of this Conference will change from tomorrow so I took the opportunity to meet with people who, though not directly involved in the negotiations, care deeply about their outcome. I met with parliamentarians, trade union leaders, politicians and members of civil society while managing to meet as well with lots of Ministers and their officials.
I overslept so I could only do a quick run at the gym but, given the vastness of this Conference Centre, I may be able to get all the exercise I need simply by moving from meeting to meeting inside this facility. I must say the Conference Centre is amazing — a true reflection of a modern Hong Kong. HK Trade Minister John Tsang has done a great job.
After some quick meetings with my staff this morning, I’m off to say a few words to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. As I told them, involvement of national parliamentarians in WTO matters lends trade relations necessary accountability. It is parliaments, after all, which must approve any agreement resulting from these negotiations, so keeping legislators informed and involved is of critical importance.
Then a visit to the International Confederation of Trade Unions. I can’t agree more with their insistence that trade has to create more jobs. People’s livelihoods and the chance to improve standards of living — that’s why we’re here, and why I said to them they should support our work.
I had lunch with Commonwealth Trade Ministers — delicious Cantonese cuisine — they were concerned that the negotiations are not moving very fast. I told them that this week needs to be about negotiations — not just Christmas shopping.
Back to the Conference Centre for the “Big Noise” — a petition signed by almost 18 million citizens in favour of fair trade. I’m certainly impressed by the petition and by Oxfam’s work to get people thinking about trade. Talking of which, while I was doing an interview with a French radio station, José Bové called in to complain he was being retained at Hong Kong airport and was not being allowed in. I told him I would check with the HK authorities. Some hours later he was here ..... that’s what open dialogue is about.
It’s been a long day but there are still some Ministers to meet before I can relax and get ready for tomorrow: the big opening ceremony. Talk to you then, and stay with me!