Now that the Doha issues, fondly dubbed DDA (Doha Development Agenda), have almost been snuffed, is it time for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to prepare to preside over the funeral session in style?
The world trade body will, of course, try its best to argue otherwise. It has already hailed the outcome of the just-concluded Ministerial Conference 10 (MC10) in Nairobi as historic. History, for all practical purposes, takes the side of the victors, and from that angle, the ministerial may be termed historic in as much as the triumph of the rich countries is concerned -- in calling the shots.
The DDA has been in a pathetic condition for more than a decade. Launched in 2001 and meant to deliver an equitable global trade order, it stumbled from one deadlock to another. The promise of a substantially improved market access for the poor countries, deep cuts in agricultural subsidies by the rich countries and fairer trade rules got watered down by the passage of time. The Nairobi ministerial has reaffirmed that the DDA issues -- diminished and even diluted by more than a decade-long neglect -- is, as though, headed for its natural death. There is, unfortunately, an element of mockery too that some quarters hardly forget to indulge in while referring to it. Even apparent sympathisers of the DDA in the West refer to it as a dead horse that won't respond to flogging. There are others who like to see it as a long-running television serial: an endless recycling of worn-out story lines and dramatic moments of hope punctured by tragic outcomes.
Whatever has emerged in the form of a highly compromised package from the Nairobi ministerial is, no doubt, face-saving for the WTO. There were few positives for the poor countries though, but not in line with the expectations generated fourteen years ago at Doha. Obviously, the 'biggies' also wanted something in the form of a package (with vague promises methodically fitted into long-winding sentences), lest they are denounced as the villain for a failed ministerial - a repetition of 1999 when the Seattle Ministerial broke down amid cracking of tear gas shells. Back then, it was, among others, the anti-capitalist protesters expressing their fury at the 'rigged' rules of the global marketplace that they believed protected the wealth of the rich and excluded the poor - a purely capitalistic game plan.
What appeared a trifle intriguing with the Nairobi Ministerial was the absence of expected uproar from quarters protesting against what could well be termed manifestly capitalistic. To quote Heather Stewart, who commenting on the outcome of the Nairobi conference, wrote in The Guardian the other day, "It's a sign of how Doha failed that leftwing protestors no longer target it as a symbol of capitalism." However, it was groups of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who blamed the WTO as the secretive agent of neo-capitalism under the shape and form of globalisation.
The WTO has now no choice but to own the outcome of the MC10 as something positive, despite the divide among country blocs about which director general Roberto Azevedo had been warning the members months ahead of the conference, and which persisted in a rather consolidated form until the end of the event. The core of the Nairobi Ministerial Declaration is in paragraphs 30, 31 and 34. And these clearly reflect the deep conflicting divisions within the WTO membership. Although there are a few things for the least developed countries (LDCs), terming those as a wholesome package, as claimed by the accomplished conference Chair Amina Mohamed, is just an official rhetoric. As for the developing countries, the outcome, if any, is no more than a peanut. They apparently returned from Nairobi empty-handed. Their efforts to see major issues like export competition, food stockpiling, special safeguard mechanism (SSM) addressed suitably did not materialise.
Observers who have been closely following the developments since the Doha Ministerial in 2001, find it difficult for the talks to settle on remotely diverse issues like agriculture, manufacturing and services. According to them, it was probably far too ambitious to try to tie up simultaneous deals on these largely varying issues with stakes highly different, often conflicting, among different country blocs. Still, it was hoped that countries would give ground in some areas in return for concessions elsewhere, but this did not work to bring the divergent groups together in the game of give and take. It became increasingly clear that the rich countries are unwilling, or politically unable, to offer what has been promised without a quid pro quo - and the developing countries don't have much to give. As a result, what began as an expression of the spirit of internationalism quickly descended into a series of cross-cutting mercantilist spats. And while trade liberalisation continues apace through mega regional trade agreements (RTAs) among powerful trading blocs, the poorest countries find their hopes for space in the highly asymmetric world increasingly diminished.
Tracing the failure of the developing and poor countries in negotiating these and other long stalled issues, Mr Chakravarthi Raghavan, Editor Emeritus of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), in his commentary on the MC10 writes, "The real problem for developing countries is that they gave up the single most effective leverage they had in the negotiations by conceding at Bali 2013 the TFA (Trade Facilitation Agreement) as a separate accord, and agreed at Geneva in 2014 to a protocol for its incorporation into WTO Annex I-A, without resolving other issues of concern to them or tying it into the SU (single undertaking)." This is a highly apt remark, though overlooked by many analysts. Mr Raghavan further qualifies his remark by saying that if the developing countries do not band together to enforce the SU character of the mandate of the Doha Declaration, the developed countries would find it convenient to change the basic character of the multilateral trade system as it has been known since 1948. "If the WTO and its MTS (multilateral trading system) are allowed to take on the new 'shape' that the US and EU, and their media shills are now pushing, the major players will only pick up issues of interest to them one by one from now onwards", he adds. Developing countries thus have to ensure that no consensus gets developed at WTO, in Geneva, on new issues until the successful conclusion of the Doha Work Programme. The developing bloc can stick to this stance strictly in line with paragraph 34 of the Nairobi Ministerial Declaration that states, "While we (the ministers) concur that officials should prioritise work where results have not yet been achieved, some wish to identify and discuss other issues for negotiation; others do not. Any decision to launch negotiations multilaterally on such issues would need to be agreed by all Members."
Now what is in store for the coming days? Terming the DDA dead is not going to help the poor countries. The issues covered under it were the outcome of elaborate, painstaking efforts in identifying the hindrances the poor as well as the developing countries face in sector-specific areas - an exercise never attempted so thoughtfully before the Doha Ministerial. So, if Doha is dead, some noble thoughts will be buried with it. There is thus no choice but to exploit whatever is left of the lost ground, in order that some of the noble thoughts could be retrieved. It is here, as Chakravarthi Raghavan has argued, retaining the Single Undertaking (SU) character of the DDA can play an important role. Paragraph 31 of the Nairobi Declaration gives scope to infuse some life into the SU. Paragraph 31 reads: "Nevertheless, there remains a strong commitment of all Members to advance negotiations on the remaining Doha issues. This includes advancing work in all three pillars of agriculture, namely domestic support, market access and export competition, as well as non-agriculture market access, services, development, TRIPS and rules. Work on all the Ministerial Decisions adopted in Part II of this Declaration will remain an important element of our future agenda." Implementing the future agenda will depend on how efficiently the key stakeholders -- the developing and poor countries - unite to negotiate some of the core issues, if not all.