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WTO-SPECIAL: Developing Nations Push Back

Emad Mekay

HONG KONG, Dec 15 2005 (IPS) - Once downtrodden at international meetings, developing countries, led by India and Brazil, are showing renewed assertiveness in the face of pressure from industrialised nations that are lobbying to open new markets at a global trade meeting here.

An increasing number of poor nations have been banding together, forming alliances and groups to challenge the position of rich nations – mainly the United States and European Union – at the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) now underway in Hong Kong.

On Wednesday, five leaders of small alliances of developing countries met to form a larger bloc to lobby on key issues like agriculture and cotton. The groups are the G20, G33, Africa Group, the Least Developed Countries Group and the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group.

Brazil’s Minister of External Relations Celso Amorim, one of the engines behind the new solidarity, described the event as unprecedented. “This is the first time we discussed our different issues among ourselves and not waited for others to do it with us,” he said.

Central and Western African nations have also vowed to defend their common interests as one bloc. Chief among their concerns is the fall in cotton prices because of subsidies to cotton farmers by the United States.

Nine developing countries, including India, Brazil and South Africa, also announced a new negotiating group on non-agricultural market access (NAMA). Other countries in the alliance include Egypt, Argentina, Venezuela, the Philippines and Namibia.

But perhaps more impressive is a meeting for developing countries on Thursday aimed at creating a potential umbrella alliance of 110 of the WTO’s 149 members, to be named the G110. If the union comes to life, it will be the largest group of developing nations in trade talks.

“If it comes together, this new alliance could mark a radical shake-up at the WTO,” said Adriano Camplina Soares of the U.S.-based ActionAid. “It will be much harder for rich countries to push through their demands in these talks if poor countries unite and champion the rights of poor people.”

Many say that the new groups will serve as a long-term platform for poor nations to resist future attempts by more powerful countries to pass rules that primarily benefit international corporations, mostly based in industrialised nations.

At the current WTO round of talks, developing countries are demanding the elimination of tariffs to obtain effective access to developed countries’ markets, especially for traditional industries like textiles, clothing, leather products, footwear and a range of other medium technology products.

Rich nations, on the other hand, have been pressuring developing nations hard to open their markets for goods and services. So far, they have failed to get their way.

“Solidarity and assertiveness amongst developing countries is vital to achieve a pro-development outcome and resist rich country attempts to stitch up a deal that serves only their interests,” said Phil Bloomer of Oxfam International.

This assertiveness among developing nations over the past three days of the meetings represents a much more proactive strategy by the countries themselves.

Regional economic powers Brazil and India have both said that they are willing to drop some of their barriers against goods from poorer nations and grant them quota-free and duty-free access in a programme that would parallel offers by rich nations.

Both have also said they will offer technical expertise and assistance to the poorest nations, a position that was noted by the U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman as an positive change.

“I actually see that some of the responsibility being taken was perhaps previously shouldered more by the developed countries,” Portman told reporters.

The newfound confidence among developing nations was noticeable here in other forms, as some nations openly heaped scorn on liberalisation proposals, seen as one-sided, that the United States and the European Union have put on the table.

India’s Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath, a prominent figure at the meetings, ridiculed a proposal by rich nations on trade in non-agricultural products that proposes a 75 percent cut in tariffs by developing nations but only 25 percent for developed countries.

“Surely, there is a mistake somewhere,” he said. “It cannot be that preposterous.”

Nath also mocked statements by EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelseon before the start of the meetings, noting that the EU came to Hong Kong with no offer on agriculture apart from a proposed 45 percent cut in subsidies that was publicised earlier this month.

Nath, joined by Amorim of Brazil, told reporters that this position was a non-starter.

“If you’ve come with empty pockets, you cannot go shopping,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.

The upbeat mood among developing countries was also evident in some of the novel ideas they proposed.

India has requested that the WTO provide more protections for ancient intellectual property rights. The country has unveiled a database with more than 30 million pages of texts on herbal medicine, yoga and other areas it argues should be granted protections similar to those offered to Western companies.

India went on the offensive, asking the WTO to come up with a system to limit the ability of global corporations to patent a nation’s centuries-old knowledge.

But regardless of the many forms the new solidarity among poor nations has taken, officials from developing nations insist that their unity is fueled by one factor: the unreasonable demands from industrialised countries.

“All of us have been concerned there has not been a movement in this round of negotiations,” Angela Didiza, minister of agriculture in South Africa, a leading member of the new alliance, told IPS. “Our people are actually suffering that’s why we will use our strength during this processàThis issue binds us. There’s a common interest there.”

Asked by IPS what he sees as the glue holding developing countries together, Amorim of Brazil said: “We have a just cause”.

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