* Echoes of Seattle’s undone business resound in UN trade conference

By Susan Cunningham
Earth Times News Network

Bangkok–Dispelling any doubts lingering with the Seattle pepper spray, the chiefs of multilateral agencies meeting here last month stressed their agreement with complaints that had led to the collapse of trade talks last December.

The directors of the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and numerous U.N. agencies weren’t referring to the grievances of Western labor unions or environmental organizations that sparked riots and fifteen minutes of media attention in Seattle.

Instead, they were responding to the disaffection of developing nations. At the eight-day meeting of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), 159 ministers from South and North joined in reciting the same lesson: while developing countries had dropped import barriers and liberalized their economies in the past decade, richer countries hadn’t reciprocated by opening their own markets–most especially for agricultural products. For the new “development round” of talks to proceed, they said, developing countries must see more transparency and have a greater role than in the past in devising the rules.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan voiced the views of ministers from the developing world when he said the “main losers in today’s unequal world” weren’t people who had been over-exposed to globalization, but those who had been excluded from it. The “popular myth” is that talks were “blocked in Seattle by the people of the world joining together in the streets to defend their right to be different, against a group of faceless bureaucrats who wanted to force them all to eat genetically modified food,” Annan scoffed. The more “prosaic” truth, he told the 3,000 delegates, was that industrialized countries have lacked the political strength to “confront” their protectionist constituencies.



It remains to be seen whether the World Bank and IMF can deliver on their hopes for poverty relief, debt forgiveness and inter-organizational “coherence.” Or whether there’s any support for the proposal, made by departing IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus, that annual G-8 meetings be expanded to include leaders of 30 nations.

But Mike Moore, the optimistic WTO director-general, could claim progress on a market-access initiative that had been sidelined in Seattle–even as he cautioned that other deep divisions must be bridged before the round can be formally re-started. The initiative calls for all industrialized countries to scrap import duties and quotas on all products from the 48 least-developed countries. In U.N.-speak, these countries are the “LDCs”; together they claim only 0.4 percent of the world’s exports.

First to take the pledge was Sweden, followed in the plenary sessions by Britain, Germany, Netherlands and Denmark. But in three days of negotiations, these northern European states were only able to persuade other countries to promise access for “essentially all” LDC products. U.S. reluctance stemmed from fear of a surge in cheap garment imports. Japan predictably refused to open its rice market. Southern European countries feared the impact on their own heavily protected farmers.

“Essentially all” nonetheless allows entry for “99 percent of LDC products,” said Poul Nielson, European Commissioner for Development. “The European Union has nothing to apologize for.”

The job of Geneva-based UNCTAD is to help developing countries improve their trade performance by providing analyses and technical assistance. It does not have treaty-making powers. This quadrennial ministerial meeting nonetheless turned into a dress rehearsal for commitments in the WTO and other forums as ministers ostensibly struggled over the language in UNCTAD’s upcoming work plan.

For Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero and UNCTAD staff, most welcome was a strong mandate to contribute to discussions on reforming international financial institutions and preventing financial crises. UNCTAD economists blame the new availability of private overseas funds, lack of capital controls, and consequent speculation for triggering the Asian financial crises of 1997 and 1998 … §

This is an extract from a dispatch that ran in 2000 in the online version of Pranay Gupte’s late, lamented Earth Times and in the print version a few days later.

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