|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
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An agenda for survivalHow did developing countries fare at the WTO negotiating table in Doha? Rushdy Abdel-Qader* assesses the meeting
The Doha ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which witnessed the adoption of the Doha Declaration to launch a new round of multilateral trade negotiations, was a world apart from the Seattle debacle on virtually all bases of comparison. Not only did last week's meeting in the Qatari capital reaffirm the WTO's role as the pre- eminent institution for regulating and liberalising international trade but it also rejuvenated the multilateral trading system.
Developing countries approached the WTO negotiating table better prepared than they had been in the organisation's more than 50-year history. They had long been hard at work on the national and regional levels and at the WTO's Geneva headquarters.
Since May this year, when the chairman of the general council of the WTO prepared his first draft for the Doha Declaration, Egypt hosted and participated in half a dozen regional and international preparatory meetings, most of them at the ministerial level.
Last June, Cairo hosted the first preparatory meeting of Arab trade ministers from WTO member- states. Egypt's capital was also the site of the subsequent meeting of trade ministers of COMESA countries (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) and other African countries including South Africa.
In September, the Egyptian delegation travelled to the preparatory meeting in Mexico of leading parties in the WTO and the multilateral trading system. That same month witnessed Egyptian participation in the preparatory meeting of African countries held in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.
Developing countries' extensive preparations were instrumental in their achievement of better results at the Doha conference than those realised at ministerial meetings of the WTO in Singapore, Geneva and Seattle.
Consequently, the Doha Declaration reflected the negotiating position of developing countries in a more balanced and transparent manner than declarations from previous encounters. While the ultimate objective of developing countries was not fully achieved, last-minute compromises obtained by developing countries make the Doha round a positive step in that direction.
A major area in which developing countries achieved positive breakthroughs was that concerning Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Not only did they receive exemptions concerning basic medicines and public health, but they also won the extension of TRIPS to protect traditional knowledge and folklore.
The commitment obtained by developing countries from industrial ones to negotiate agricultural subsidies -- in particular their reduction in industrialised countries -- paves the way for Egypt to reap the fruits of its comparative advantage in this sector.
Industrialised countries' promise to discuss relaxing some of their quota restrictions on textiles is also a positive step towards meeting the requests of developing countries.
Since 1947, the Multilateral Trade Negotiations (MTN) system has produced eight rounds of trade negotiations, starting with the 1947 Geneva round that gave birth to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and ending with the Uruguay round 1986-94, which established the WTO.
GATT membership has expanded dramatically from its initial roster of 23 members to comprise 144 countries.
The first director-general of GATT led the organisation for 20 years, resigning in 1968. He was succeeded by five other director-generals. The last of these, currently running the organisation, is Mike Moore, former prime minister of New Zealand.
Since the MTN system was initiated, tariff barriers worldwide have dropped from an average of 40 per cent to less than 3.8 per cent. During the same period, world trade has increased 14-fold and global output six-fold, proving that trade, indeed, is the engine of development.
While the establishment of the MTN system was essential for setting down the framework for trade in the post-war era, the Doha Declaration is equally fundamental to reconstituting the economic order of the new millennium, not only because of the Seattle setback, but also as a coherent economic response to the devastating tragedy of 11 September.
At the top of the list of those celebrating the Doha Declaration is surely the WTO itself and its director, Moore. New Zealand's former leader was elected to lead the organisation in 1999, just months before the ill-fated Seattle meeting. The bitter disappointment generated by the conference held at the American west coast city surely strengthened Moore's resolve to lead the WTO to achieve its first success in launching a round of trade negotiations.
Also pleased with the outcome of Doha are the leading players in the multilateral trade system. Robert Zoellick, the US Trade Representative, and Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, are surely heartened by the groundwork set in the Qatari capital for future talks.
Representatives of the developing countries also have every reason to be satisfied with their performance in advancing the interests of their countries within the multilateral trading system at the meeting. They distinguished themselves as "professional players on the multilateral trading scene," as Youssef Boutros Ghali, the leader of the Egyptian delegation to Doha, put it.
Doha marked the debut of China and Taiwan as members of the WTO, each having sought membership for the past 15 years.
Another 28 states are working towards joining the organisation. Should they succeed, the organisation will be that much closer to universality. Qatar and the Arab world have much to be proud of, having successfully organised and hosted the world's most important economic meeting at a time when the regional and international security situation is extremely volatile. The efforts of Qatar's Finance Minister Youssef Kamal in ensuring that the event went off without a hitch are particularly noteworthy. The Qatari government and people were unwavering in offering their hospitality and showing their commitment to free trade by standing firm on their invitation to WTO members, even as rumours mounted about changing the conference venue to a location deemed more secure.
Qatar's performance can only have positive ramifications for the acceleration of procedures for full membership in the WTO by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan.
* The writer is a former permanent trade representative of Egypt in Geneva.
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