Tent Number Six
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) was running its Tenth Ministerial Conference (WTO MC10) from 15th to 19th December in Nairobi. Every day from early morning till late evening I sat in Tent Number 6 – the main tent of the NGOs at the conference site. The Tent was organised and run by activists from a network called OWINFS – Our World Is Not For Sale. SEATINI (Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute) - is a member of OWINFS.
In Tent Number 6, the sheer hurry-flurry of activism was exhilarating, infectious… and a bit confusing. Snippets of trade-chat could be heard:
- Who is following the Ag text?
- I heard that fishing is moving away from plurilaterals.
- They'll discuss Part II of the Declaration this afternoon. Is anybody monitoring it?
- Australia and Canada are not happy with US formulation of export credits…
- Who has got the photos?
- And the wall charts? We’ve to rush to the Conference Centre before the delegates arrive.
- Okay, hurry up! I’ve got the charts. Anybody with a camera?
- Let’s go…. Move! Endelea, haraka!
- Aree, kya baat hai!
This was the everyday tamasha, the hullabaloo, in Tent Number 6.
OWINFS is a network with a common perspective in broad terms. But there are deep and fundamental differences among the members on objectives, strategy and tactics.
Three major divides of the membership of OWINFS
Whilst sharing a common platform, the OWINFS divides into roughly three groups on trade and the WTO.
A B C
Reform the WTO Resist the WTO Dump the WTO
The first group (the “reformists”) argues that the WTO is a reality; you have to deal with it. And the way to deal with it is to help its disadvantaged member countries to better argue their case in the main negotiating chambers of the WTO. This can be done in many ways, but the best would be to arm them with appropriate technical and moral arguments defending their case, and showing to the world at large (through, among others, the media) the unfairness of the global trading system. The countries of the South, for example, have a right to “Special and Differential” treatment in the WTO - they are not required to follow the stringent conditions of free trade that are required of the developed countries. Global civil society should continue to demand of the WTO that it upholds this principle even if the developed countries ignore it. The WTO should be reformed so that it honors the principles of free and fair trade.
The second group (the “Resisters”) agrees that the WTO is a reality. However, its advocates differ with the reformists in some fundamental ways. They argue that the WTO is essentially a “war machine” of the Empire (the US, Europe and Japan) to extract maximum benefits for their countries and corporations. “Free Trade” is a fiction; it has never existed in history. Fair trade, though it has a nice ring about it, is an illusion. For twelve years, for example, the four countries of Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali) have been arguing that the US’s illegal subsidies to its cotton producers have resulted in price drop globally and has led to literally millions in their countries facing massive unemployment and starvation. Of course, to no avail – the US would rather that people in Africa die than deny American cotton producers subsidies. The WTO, this group argues, is not a development organisation; it is a trade body. Trade in the capitalist epoch is war; the WTO is a weapon of war against the South and against the workers and peasants in the West. The Empire must be challenged and resisted. Resistance, not reform, is the way forward.
The third group (the “dumpers”) argues that the WTO is crafted by its founders as an exploitative system. Nothing good can come out of it. It has to be dumped. All the activists can do is to march in the streets (preferably peacefully) protesting against its very existence. The sooner the WTO perishes the better for the world’s exploited peasants and workers. The Capitalist system is inherently unreformable; it has to be overthrown, and with it its main institutions of governance – namely, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. One of its most active members, La Via Campesina, for example, issued a statement on the eve of the MC10 demanding an “End to the WTO; peasants believe that the WTO cannot be reformed or turned around”.[i]
Despite these differences, Tent number Six provided a remarkable sense of solidarity. Specifically, the NGOs assembled there agreed that there were two non-negotiable issues: One was that the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) had to be “reaffirmed”; and the second was that the inclusion of ‘new’ issues must be rejected.[ii]
An Analysis of the outcome of the MC10
The outcome of MC10 – the Nairobi Declaration - was pronounced by the WTO Secretariat, understandably of course, as a success. Its Director-General Roberto Azevêdo hailed it as the “most significant outcome on agriculture” in the organization’s 20-year history.[iii] The mainstream media – especially in the West – also described MC10 as a success. By contrast, most NGOs described it as a failure for the South and for the people of the world. For example, Oxfam America argued that the text on agriculture “does not offer significant improvement over the status quo and could even be a step backwards”. [iv]
The most contentious issue in the Nairobi Declaration is the text on the future of the DDA - paragraph 30 of the Nairobi Declaration. It reads: “We recognize that many Members reaffirm the Doha Development Agenda, and the Declarations and Decisions adopted at Doha and at the Ministerial Conferences held since then, and reaffirm their full commitment to conclude the DDA on that basis. Other Members do not reaffirm the Doha mandates, as they believe new approaches are necessary to achieve meaningful outcomes in multilateral negotiations. Members have different views on how to address the negotiations. We acknowledge the strong legal structure of this Organization.” [v]
This “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other- hand” formulation would provide a field day for legal experts and negotiators at the WTO in Geneva. My own view is that the matter will get stuck in the sands of time, and the Empire will move towards other instruments such as the TTIP, TPP, other regional agreements, and the so-called plurilaterals to pursue their agendas.[vi] I also think that it is wasted energy for the global civil society to get stuck on the technicalities of this paragraph – energy that could be better spent in mobilising the people at the grassroots to RESIST the Empire and the WTO diktat and to formulate and fight for their own agendas.
If it were not for the enormous harm that the WTO – and its ideology of neoliberalism and fictitious “free trade” - has inflicted on the people of the world, it would justifiably be described as a “theatre of the absurd”. Why? For two reasons:
One: the MC10 was a farce from the beginning to the end. In my blog of December 9, 2015, (before the start of the MC10) I had more or less predicted the outcome “The Nairobi Declaration (if such is the outcome of the MC10) will be a negotiated text. What does that mean? Like in all previous MCs, it means, effectively, that the powerful get what they want and the weak surrender under the threat of sanctions… It takes collective efforts of the Global South, and the solidarity voices of the people of the world to beat Empire - as in Seattle in 1999, and Cancun, 2003. In between the powerful and the weak are countries like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that do have some – but limited - negotiating leverage, provided they act in concert. Opposed to BRICS and the Global South is the Empire - a term that is not admissible in diplomatic – including WTO - discourse. But the Empire exists; it is an existential reality….” [vii]
In that piece I drew out seven possible outcome scenarios and ranked them in order from good to bad – that is, from the perspective of Africa and the Global South. Based on these, I drew the following conclusions. It is worth repeating these from the hindsight of the outcome of MC10.
- The WTO was created by the Empire and controlled and coordinated by it - like a war machine. There are differences among its constituent members (for example between the US and the EU), but on the DDA they are united – they are bent on killing it.
- The WTO political game is played with complete lack of any democratic or moral scruples. The Empire speaks of democracy and good governance, ad infinitum, but there is not a morsel of it within the WTO system of global economic governance. And the Empire gets away with total impunity.
- The WTO’ ideology of ‘free trade’ is a pure fiction. Nothing like that ever existed in history, not even during its ‘high point’ of 19th century English mercantile system.
- The WTO is not neutral. Its DG - Azevêdo - is not neutral. He is a ‘free market’ fundamentalist and works for the Empire.
- The Chairperson of MC10, Ambassador Amina Mohamed, is officially neutral. As the Chair she has to be. But she will be under huge pressure from the Empire, Azevêdo, and the WTO Secretariat to produce an outcome favourable to the Empire.
I had suggested - more in desperation than hope - that “It is time Africa sits up and gets counted. It must resist the WTO's culture of terror and impunity for the Empire”. Well, Kenya played host to the MC10, and the Government had to deliver to the Empire what it was obliged to under duress of the imperial system.
The second reason the MC10 is a “theatre of the absurd” is because the consequences of the Nairobi Declaration are going to be dire not only for Africa but, ironically, also for the Empire, especially Europe. In the press release issued by members of the African civil society at the MC10 (even before the outcome text came out), they warned: “The Green Room process excludes Africa. Africa is being marginalised on the very soil of Africa. A likely outcome of this non-transparent process would be to devastate Africa’s economy and Policy Space. This will create massive unemployment in Africa, especially youth and women. It will disposess millions people of their livelihoods and become internal refugees in Africa, and easily half a million people potential refugees heading for Europe no matter what the obstacles.” (See Appendix)
The Empire is an empire of the absurd – a tragic-comic farce. Unless the South gets together in solidarity with the people of the world in active RESISTANCE against the Empire and the WTO, this war machine will destroy not only the global South but also the global North.
My final conclusion: Speaking as a member of the global civil society, it is important that we learn from the experience of WTO MC10. The reformists are harbouring a dangerous illusion. Activism is important, but without a correct revolutionary theory, activism is more commotion (tamasha) than movement. It creates an illusion of “being involved” but actually going nowhere.
Appendix: AFRICAN PRESS RELEASE AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE TENTH MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE OF THE WTO IN NAIROBI ON 19 DECEMBER, 2015
MEDIA MESSAGE: A SECOND SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA
- The Green Room process excludes Africa. Africa is being marginalised on the very soil of Africa.
- A likely outcome of this non-transparent process would devastate Africa’s economy and Policy Space.
- This will create massive unemployment in Africa, especially youth and women. It will disposess millions people of their livelihoods and become internal refugees in Africa, and easily half a million people potential refugees heading for Europe no matter what the obstacles.
- Africa will work in solidarity with India to protest against an outcome that violates the food sovereignty and livelihoods of our people. Global South will not be divided and conquered.
- Africa should walk out of this conference; it has nothing for Africa that our governments can offer to our people.
- We denounce any effort by the industrialized countries to blame Africa and the developing countries if this Conference fails. The blame lies squarely with the developed countries who have designed an asymmetrical, unjust system of global trade governance.
- We appeal to our solidarity movements in other parts of the world to support the struggles of the people of Africa and Policy Space for our Governments.
This statement was drafted by the following as an urgent intervention in a fast-moving unfolding process from which Africa was excluded. We had to take a stand, and we hope that many more will join us to support this statement.
Dated: Nairobi, 19 December 2015, 14.20
[ii] . For a more detailed analysis of this, see: “Africa Draws Red Lines on the Sands of the WTO Ministerial”, http://yashtandon.com/category/blog/)
[iv] cid:75A60A7A-1E05-4E25-BC59-B8B52529E864]Oxfam America Comments on Food Aid Disciplines.
[v] WT/MIN(15)/W/33/Rev.3 19 December 2015
[vi] For an analysis of the TTIP, TPP, etc. see my “Dangers of WTO MC 10: New Round + TTIP + TPP + EPA”, 20 October, 2015, http://yashtandon.com/category/blog/. A plurilateral agreement is a one entered into by the WTO members on a voluntary basis; it does not bind those not party to it. The Agreement on Government Procurement is one such plurilateral agreement. The problem is that plurilaterals have a tendency, over time, to become multilaterals.
[vii] See: “Resisting WTO's Culture of Terror and Impunity”, http://yashtandon.com/category/blog/
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