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What is at Stake in the World Trade Organization Conference in Nairobi

Roberto Azevêdo is the sixth Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

GENEVA, Dec 11 2015 (IPS) - The Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is now just a few days away, from 15 to 18 December in Nairobi.

This is the first time that the WTO has held a Ministerial Conference in Africa­ and therefore expectations are high that it should deliver for Africa ­ and for all developing countries, particularly the least-developed.

This work is happening mainly through two processes.

The first process is that of the negotiations group. Members are working through these groups on a range of specific issues. However, despite intensive efforts on all of the core issues of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) of world trade negotiations, started in November 2001, I must report that little progress has been made. Gaps between members’ positions remain huge.

This means we haven’t been able to advance in many of the major DDA issues such as agricultural domestic support, for example, or any aspect of market access ­ whether agricultural, non-agricultural, or services.

Nevertheless, a general sense has emerged that consensus might be achievable on some issues ­if, and only if, we work very hard on all of them.

This includes a package of measures for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), which could contain a number of possible elements, such as further steps on Duty-Free and Quota-Free (DFQF), services, cotton and rules of origin.

Another issue which we may be able to harvest is a possible agreement on export competition in agriculture, which may include steps on export subsidies, export credits, the role of state trading enterprises and food aid, for example. Any achievements here would be especially important for developing and least-developed countries.

We are also working on issues such as special safeguard mechanisms and public stockholding for food security purposes, though progress is lacking here as well.

Indeed, at present, nothing is guaranteed. There is still a long way to go, significant gaps still to bridge, and little time remaining.

So, that’s the first process. The second is focused on drafting a Ministerial Declaration. There has been intensive work going on here as well.

In this regard, a majority of delegations made reference to a “Bali-like” Ministerial Declaration (December 2013) in three parts. The first part would have the introductory language, focusing on the importance of the multilateral trading system, the second part would cover the Nairobi deliverables, and the third part would look to the future work of the WTO after Nairobi.

There has been some progress. Clearly, however, we will need to take a different approach for the most contentious issues.

This process on the declaration shows the importance of Nairobi ­ but it also underlines the fact that our work will not end there.

The conversation about the future of the DDA is surely just as important as any deliverables that we will achieve in Nairobi.

The DDA has seen slow progress since its launch in 2001 and when negotiations are slow in the WTO, countries will explore other avenues such as regional trade agreements.

These initiatives are positive, but the WTO must advance as well.

The risk of doing everything in regional forums is that most of the time developing countries and LDCs will be left out of the conversation.

It is only at the multilateral level where all voices are heard, and where the biggest development issues can be properly addressed.

This brings the spotlight back to the WTO, and to our capacity to negotiate.

Nevertheless, I think we cannot disregard important commonalities when thinking the way ahead.

For instance, I think all members agree that:

– We want to deliver in Nairobi.
– Whatever we deliver will not be enough to formally and consensually conclude the Doha Round.
– And members are willing to keep the big Doha issues on the table, agriculture being the most pre-eminent of these.

This discussion on how we move forward will be vitally important for the future of the WTO.

So there is a lot at stake, in terms of the potential deliverables ­ and in terms of what success, or failure, would mean for the future of the multilateral trading system.

Nairobi will be a very important moment in many ways. And I should say that there could be a number of other positive outcomes there.

Ministers of the 162 country members will be asked to approve the membership of Liberia and Afghanistan, for example ­ which will deliver a big boost for growth and development in those two countries.

It is also possible that the deal to expand the Information Technology Agreement will be finalized, which will deliver more economic growth around the world.

And we may see some further progress on the Environmental Goods Agreement.

In addition, we hope to see a strong vote of support for the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) at their pledging conference which will be held on the eve of the ministerial. Indeed, the EIF provides essential support for LDCs, and so this will be another important outcome from the Ministerial Conference.

In conclusion, we have a lot on the table ­ but a lot of work is still required to achieve successful outcomes in Nairobi.

So how do we take forward the outstanding Doha issues after Nairobi? Opinions are quite divergent on this point.

Some members argue that we must keep working on Doha because it is vital for development ­ and that while Doha is not concluded we must not divert our focus to discuss anything else.

Others argue that after years of limited success under the Doha architecture, it is unlikely that this framework could yield any further progress, especially on the more difficult issues.

Therefore, these countries are reluctant to continue engaging in negotiations under this current framework.

These members also believe that for the Organization to function properly, it has to evolve and address whatever new issues members want to talk about. For these members, it is critical that the WTO addresses new concerns; otherwise it risks losing its relevance.

Obviously, it is difficult to reconcile these views.


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