Going to take the unusual step of quoting a whole document rather than just providing a link.


Aftab Alam Khan, head of ActionAid’s trade justice campaign, reflects on the WTO’s sixth ministerial conference and what the final declaration means for the world’s poorest people

Monday December 19, 2005

Six thousand delegates, six days of talks, but what has all this effort achieved? Hong Kong has been in the eye of the storm as trade ministers and officials from the WTO’s 150 member states descended on the city to thrash out an agreement on how global trade can be harnessed to help alleviate poverty.

Expectations were low even before the WTO’s sixth ministerial conference kicked off on December 13, but as the ink dries on the final declaration, it is disappointing and frustrating that poor countries have been cheated once again.

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The current round of trade talks – the so-called Doha development agenda – are meant to culminate in an agreement that ensures trade rules help fight poverty rather than hinder it. But, right now, it feels as though we are going backwards, not forwards.

The declaration, issued by the WTO yesterday evening, reflects the interests of a few rich countries like the EU and the US rather than those of more than 100 developing countries, home to four-fifths of humanity.

The EU and US ended up making only paltry offers to reduce their agricultural subsidies, the thorniest issue on the negotiating table.

The EU managed to deceive poor countries by concentrating everyone’s minds on an end date of 2013 for its €1bn worth of export subsidies, when the real issue is the €55bn that it gives in other forms of domestic support.

The US played a similar game by merely tinkering with its cotton subsidies. It offered to end its cotton export subsidies by 2006, but the vast majority of its nearly $4bn of subsidies takes the form of domestic support not export subsidies.

In return for these token offers, significant concessions were extracted from poor countries in areas such as services and manufactured products.

An agreement on services was pushed through that will force poor countries to open up key service sectors including essential public necessities such as healthcare, education and water.

In the area of manufactured goods, poor countries are being pushed to drastically cut their tariffs. We are very worried that this will open up poor countries’ vulnerable industries to unfair competition from advanced industries and powerful multinational corporations.

Outside the convention hall, protesters weren’t happy with how the negotiations were proceeding either.

Thousands of poor farmers, factory workers and fisherfolk from all over Asia gathered every day in Victoria Park near the convention centre and staged colourful marches drawing attention to how their lives have been directly affected by WTO rules.

The South Korean protesters dominated the headlines, graphically demonstrating the level of desperation that many of the world’s poorest people have been driven to by a trade deal that favours the rich and betrays the poor.

One positive thing that came out of this summit was the formation of a powerful new alliance between the world’s poor countries. All the major developing country blocs – the G-20, G-33 and G-90 – came together for the first time at the WTO.

Although they didn’t manage to prevent a bad deal, the united front they will present at the next round of talks, scheduled to take place in a few months’ time, can only be good for ensuring that the true aim of this round of talks – ending world poverty – returns firmly to the heart of the negotiations.

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