Who does not want to conclude the Doha Round?

Business Daily, Africa, September 12, 2009 & The Economic Times, September 01, 2009

By Pradeep S Mehta

Everyone wants a swift conclusion to the Doha Round, yet there is a natural scepticism on whether the mini-ministerial meeting starting from today in Delhi will show a way forward.

India has taken a bold step to organise the meeting which is intended to put traction in the troubled Doha Round talks. In any event, India by organising this meeting has called the bluff of countries which accused it of having torpedoed the July meeting in Geneva, by not agreeing to lower its demand on safeguarding its subsistence farmers. It was not India alone which was steadfast on this issue but China and nine other countries also. True, India’s public diplomacy has been poor, that there were other factors that resulted in failure of the Geneva talks.

One wishes these talks were held in Washington DC where the fate of the Doha Round lies. However, for whatever it is worth, one hopes that the Pittsburg meeting of the G-20 later during the month will deal with the matter with more than rhetoric. Not only Doha Round, but all matters relating to the WTO rest on the Capitol Hill in DC. Unless the US president has a fast-track authority, no commitments can be made by other parties. Sadly for the the Doha Round optimists, the US administration is more occupied with many domestic issues such as health care reforms, financial crises and so on.

If one looks at the history of world trade, development has always been somewhere between the back burner and back of the stove. For example, the Havana Charter agreed to in 1948 by the founder members of the GATT, including the US, had proposed an International Trade Organisation and, inter alia, a key development issue of controlling restrictive business practices by big business. Alas, the US Congress torpedoed it, and it never came through.

The thinking in the US has always been to focus on market access and development of its own businesses. Thus, in spite of huge opposition by the poor countries, it was successful in getting an agreement on intellectual property (TRIPs) into the text of the WTO agreements in 1994-95. This is in spite of the fact that the TRIPs was against the whole spirit of trade liberalisation and also harmed the development prospects of the poor.

If we examine the Doha Round problematique in the historical context, one can see that filibustering tactics are used to push the developing world into a corner to fight with their hand tied behind their backs. This has been witnessed in every cycle of the Doha Round negotiations. The run up to Cancun ministerial was dominated by Singapore issues, which became the cause of the collapse. Thereafter Paris in 2005, Geneva in 2006, Potsdam in 2007 and Geneva 2008 broke down due to due to the inter-sticing of modalities between the farm agreement and industrial good negotiations, the Overall Trade-Distorting Domesting Support of the rich and then special safeguards in farm goods.

In each case the poor were on the defensive. The rich never realised that a win-lose outcome cannot lead to any conclusion. One only hopes that the Delhi meeting addresses these fundamental issues, otherwise conclusion of the Doha Round will remain an elusive goal.

The author is the Secretary General of CUTS International and can be reached at psm@cuts.org

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