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TRADE: Africa Should be Prioritised at WTO Ministerial

Isolda Agazzi

GENEVA, Nov 30 2009 (IPS) - African countries are ready to conclude the Doha Round on the basis of current proposals, but warn against any attempt to renegotiate them at the seventh ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that opens in Geneva today. Meanwhile, the Africa Trade Network demands a moratorium on the Doha talks.

This ministerial conference is not meant to be a negotiating forum as governments are too far apart and want to avoid another collapse in talks, as has happened several times since the last ministerial meeting in Hong Kong four years ago.

While it won’t be a negotiating forum, the Doha Round features on the official agenda and the progress and content of the talks will certainly keep the hundreds of government ministers busy, both in the meeting rooms and in informal discussions.

African governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) therefore still take the ministerial meeting seriously. In preparation for the event, ministers met in Cairo while the Africa Trade Network, representing 25 NGOs from 15 countries, met in Cape Town. The two meetings were not directly related, but both have issued statements that partially overlap.

However, their conclusions are very different.

“We want to conclude the Doha Round on the basis of the proposals of the December texts in agriculture and NAMA,” Hicham Badr, the ambassador of Egypt and coordinator of the African Group, told IPS in an interview. NAMA refers to non-agricultural market access, mainly for industrial goods but also for fish, forestry products and raw materials.

“They certainly could be better but we can already accept them, provided there is no backtracking on these texts. And, from there on, we have to resolve the outstanding issues in a pro-development way,” added Badr.

What are the outstanding issues? Last year, at the mini-ministerial meeting in July in Geneva, cotton was not even discussed, replied Badr. “Africa’s priorities should be considered at the same time as the others countries’ and not as secondary issues after everything else has been resolved.

“We also want special and differential treatment, development, special products, duty-free and quota-free market access for least developed countries and special preferences. There should be no double standards in priorities,” he insisted.

Special products and special and differential treatment are allowances granted to developing countries to create policy space to protect certain vulnerable products and sectors of their economies.

But for some NGOs, this is not enough. “We want the redress of the global trade inequities and a moratorium on the Doha negotiations,” Christabel Phiri from Third World Network Africa, which coordinates the Africa Trade Network (ATN), told IPS in an interview.

More specifically, ATN demands that special products and the special safeguard mechanism (SSM) be revamped and rehabilitated. SSM will allow developing countries to trigger higher tariffs if import volumes rise or prices fall beyond a certain level.

“SSM is one of the big issues,” conceded Badr. “It is meant to make sure that once tariffs are reduced, the interests of developing countries are preserved. The negotiations are not yet finished but, at the end of the day, whatever mechanism is adopted Africa wants it to be protective. Not like the old general safeguards which were not satisfactory.”

Regarding NAMA, ATN wants the tariff cuts proposed to developing countries, in Africa and beyond, to be rejected. “African countries must affirm their right, as per the WTO body of rules and past practice, to set targets for tariff reduction commensurate with their stage of development,” exclaimed Phiri.

Governments are mainly concerned about the “sectoral initiatives” that foresee deeper or even complete tariff cuts in entire industrial sectors, such as textiles and clothing, raw materials, fish, forestry, gems and jewellery.

“These initiatives must remain voluntary,” stated Badr. “There must be no backtracking or attempt to renegotiate, reinvent or reinterpret what was agreed upon at Hong Kong or at the July mini-ministerial in Geneva. We are ready to accept what is on the table now — even though it is not enough — but not to go back from that.

“In times of crisis, if there is a concession, it should be given to Africa.”

In services, ATN wants no further liberalisation. Existing offers made by developing countries as part of the Doha Round should be withdrawn and no new ones made.

These NGOs also want government procurement to be kept out of the services discussions and to allow for the strengthening of domestic regulations in order to boost financial markets. “The restrictions on domestic regulation currently proposed must be removed,” according to an ATN statement.

Does the African group support the Indian proposal for institutional reform of the WTO? “The proposal to strengthen the WTO was supported by many countries, among which many African,” replied Badr. “But, until now, there is no consensus on the best mechanism to achieve it.”

The ministerial conference will run until Dec 2. Ministers will discuss the role of the WTO in the current economic context and crisis and bilateral and plurilateral meetings will take place on the margins of the conference on the Doha Round and other issues, such as a new free-trade agreement among 22 emerging economies.

The “banana issue” will also be discussed as the latest changes in the trading regime imply preference erosion in access to the European market for the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, in comparison with Latin America.

African governments at Cairo agreed to push for “a solution of the banana issue which would take into consideration the interests of African banana-producing countries. This solution should integrate the required flexibility and the gradual enforcement of the principle of most-favoured nation, as well as important financial measures to ensure the survival of this sector.” The most-favoured nation principle refers to the equal extension of trade preferences to all trading partners.

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