Government, NGOs and the WTO — Some myths and realities

Business Line, March 12, 2007

In the context of a major international conference in Delhi organised by the Government in association with NGOs to deliberate upon the impasse over the Doha Round, a look at the Government-NGO engagement on WTO matters.

By Pradeep S Mehta

The multilateral trading system under the aegis of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has come a long-way since this organisation was set up in 1995 following the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of talks under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). One of the striking features of the WTO in its first decade of existence is its remarkable ability to attract the attention of non-governmental organisations.

According to WTO’s definition, any entity other than a government is an NGO. This means the WTO considers organisations representing business and public interest on a par. Itis another matter that the business interest often receives more attention as far as international trade is concerned.

From barely a few NGOs (that too mostly from the rich world) participating in the WTO’s first Ministerial in Singapore in 1996, hundreds attended the sixth in Hong Kong in 2005. The NGOs represent a range of interests: Business (including small business), consumer, environment and social issues.

There are several reasons for this growing interest among the NGOs on matters WTO. Till the Uruguay Round, international trade issues under the GATT system were mostly confined to those that were mainly of interest to rich countries.

For the first time, in the Uruguay Round, issues such as agriculture, textiles and clothing, services, investment, and intellectual property rights were brought under the ambit of the multilateral trading system.

These issues concern the lives of the common people, and thus NGOs started taking interest in the multilateral trading system. Even then it was a few NGOs of the rich countries, that were active.

The interest of developing country NGOs in WTO issues has started growing following the Singapore Ministerial. In 1996, the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) was established in Geneva.

A joint initiative of Northern and Southern NGOs, its main mandate was to inform the larger civil society on what was happening in Geneva vis-a-vis the WTO and for more than a decade ICTSD has been doing this.

For a large number of NGOs from poor countries, and for governments, ICTSD’s weekly and monthly bulletins are the major sources of information on WTO matters and thus, getting gradually empowered.

Though NGO interests in WTO matters have grown over the years, there are yet certain myths with regard to their positions, etc. This is not to say that NGO positions are homogenous on all or majority of issues (in fact, they are more often different), but it is usually perceived that all NGOs are opposed to the WTO. This is a myth.

A large number of NGOsare of centrist philosophy and do understand the virtues of a rule-based system, which is what the WTO is.

It is another matter that on many occasions several countries have violated WTO rules and in some cases, these were rectified through the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism. Many NGOs have taken active part in many of these disputes by voicing their concerns and in some cases by submitting amicus briefs.

It is another myth that the Seattle Ministerial collapsed due to NGOs marching in the streets. The reality was that Seattle was abandoned for two reasons: Irreconcilable differences between the EU and the US on further opening up agricultural trade (this continues to dominate the debate even today) and Washington’s insistence on bringing in such contentious issues as labour standards into the WTO, which was resisted by the poor countries.

A second myth is that countries like India look at NGOs (even the domestic ones) with suspicion, as international agencies and governments of rich countries support them. True, developing country NGOs are mostly supported by donors from the Western world, but these organisations rarely follow the positions of the rich countries on WTO matters.

In many cases, their positions differ substantially with those of the rich countries (even with NGOs of the rich world) but it is true that NGOs often provide a platform where the rich and the poor countries reconcile their positions on specific issues; for instance, the TRIPs and public health accords.

And since the Singapore Ministerial, New Delhi has started engaging NGOs in WTO matters. Immediately after Singapore, an advisory committee was formed by the Commerce Ministry to help trade negotiators on WTO matters, which included two NGO representatives. At Cancun, the Commerce Minister addressed a gathering of NGOs and a similar event was organised in Hong Kong also.

Following Cancun and in the run-up to the Hong Kong ministerial, the Commerce Ministry regularly organised consultations with NGOs, and many of India’s positions (particularly on agriculture) were based on such consultations.

This practice is being followed religiously. Clearly, countries like India have understood the importance of an “inclusive process” while taking positions on WTO matters and this is one way of mainstreaming international trade into our development strategy.

The author is Secretary General, CUTS International, a leading research, advocacy and networking group and can be reached at

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