WTO business as usual: bullying tactics and broken promises

Coming only three months after the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 21st World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference could have been an opportunity for rich countries to put words into action. Instead, the documents coming out of the negotiations make it clear that there will be gains for rich countries, whilst developing countries walk away empty handed.

In the early days of the conference, the WTO announced that the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) had been finalised. The agreement covers products like GPS navigation systems, medical products such as magnetic resonance imaging machines, machine tools for manufacturing printed circuits and touch screens. The WTO claims that both developed and developing countries are represented in the group that negotiated the agreement, yet forty two of the fifty three countries who negotiated the deal are from high income countries. None of the countries from the Least Developed Country (LDC) group are represented and only one from the Lower Middle Income (LMIC) group. This is clearly not a deal intended to support development goals.

In contrast, longstanding development issues will not be addressed. Developing countries have been very clear regarding what they expect in terms of ‘special and differential treatment’, which allows them to maintain some protection for their economies before they are obliged to compete on equal terms with rich countries. But there has been huge pressure from the EU and US for them to compromise. We are told that there will also be nothing for the group of West African cotton producers (the ‘C4) who suffer hugely from rich country subsidies.

India had been holding out for a permanent solution on the public stockholding for food security agreement, which allows countries to hold stocks of food to enable them to deal with food shortages and fluctuations in global market prices. They had seen this as the quid pro quo for the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), concluded two years ago and also a priority for rich countries. We heard today that, in the face of heavy resistance from the US and EU, India have conceded they will not get a permanent solution, and instead just a commitment to further negotiations.

There is also clear evidence of traditional WTO ‘divide and rule’ tactics. The European Commission delegation openly welcomed what they considered to be Indonesia’s break away from the Group of 33 (G33) developing countries. They suggested that negotiations would progress more smoothly if countries moved away from United Nations configurations and operated according to the needs of their own economies. To be clear, that’s a 28 rich countries telling a 33 developing countries that it would be in their own best interests to stop negotiating as a group.

As awareness grows of the failure of the WTO, as well as agreements like TTIP, to serve environmental and social goals, so the demand for a fundamental rethink of the global trading system gets louder. Civil society organisations from across the globe, representing workers, farmers, young people and more, have been in Nairobi to hold their representatives to account. It is time global leaders to stop talking and start listening.


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