WTO and the myths about NGOs

Economic Times, March 12, 2007

By Pradeep S Mehta

One of the striking features of the WTO in its first decade of existence is its remarkable ability to attract attention from NGOs. According to WTO’s definition, any entity other than a government is a non-governmental organisation. This means that WTO considers organisations representing business interest and those representing public interest at par. It’s true 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 WTO’s first ministerial conference in Singapore in 1996, hundreds of NGOs have participated in the sixth one held in Hong Kong in 2005. They represent a variety of interests: business (including small business), consumers, environment and social issues.

There are several reasons for this growing interest among the NGO community in WTO matters. Till the Uruguay Round negotiations, which lasted from the late 1980s to early 1990s, 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 & clothing, services, investment and IPRs were brought under the ambit of the multilateral trading system.

These issues concern the lives of the common people and thus NGOs have started taking interest in the multilateral trading system. Even then it was a few NGOs in rich countries, which were active in the field. I remember taking part in the Hong Kong Congress of the then International Organisation of Consumer Unions (now Consumers International) in 1991 where the famous Dunkel draft on the Uruguay Round was discussed heatedly. Unfortunately, many of us from the South were unable to understand what was going on.

Interest of NGOs from developing countries in WTO issues have grown following the Singapore ministerial conference. In 1996, the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) was established in Geneva.

It was a joint initiative of Northern and Southern NGOs, of which CUTS was one of them. Its main mandate was to inform the larger civil society on what was happening in Geneva with regard to the WTO. CUTS also played its bit in its endeavour to develop the capacity of Southern NGOs (particularly from South Asia and eastern and southern Africa) through training and other means.

Even though NGOs’ interest in WTO matters has grown over the years, there are yet certain myths with regard to their positions, etc. Often it is perceived that all NGOs are opposed to the WTO. This is a myth. There are a large number of NGOs, which are centrist in their philosophy and do understand the virtues of a rules-based system that the WTO is.

It’s another matter that on many occasions several countries have violated WTO rules and in some cases, they 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 again a myth that the Seattle ministerial conference of the WTO collapsed due to NGOs marching in the streets. The reality was that Seattle was abandoned due to two reasons: irreconcilable differences between EU and US on further opening up of agricultural trade (which continue to dominate the debate even today) and the US insistence on bringing in contentious issues such as labour standards into the WTO, which was resisted by the poor countries.

Another myth is that countries like India look at NGOs suspiciously, as mostly international agencies and governments of rich countries support them. There is little truth in this allegation. It is true that developing country NGOs are mostly supported by donors from the western world, but there is no way that they tow the positions of the rich countries on WTO matters. In many cases, their positions differ substantially with those of rich countries (even with NGOs of the rich world) but it is also true that NGOs often provide a vehicle through which the rich and the poor countries reconcile their positions on specific issues, of which the TRIPs and public health accord is one.

Since the Singapore ministerial conference, the Indian government has started engaging NGOs in its activities on WTO matters. Immediately after Singapore, an advisory committee was formed by the ministry to help our trade negotiators, which included two NGO representatives. Both at Cancun and Hong Kong, the Indian commerce minister addressed a gathering of NGOs.

Following Cancun and in the run-up to the Hong Kong ministerial, the department of commerce regularly organised consultations with NGOs and many of India’s positions (particularly on agriculture) were based on such consultations and this practice is being followed religiously. The truth is that countries like India have understood the importance of an “inclusive process” while taking positions at the WTO.

The author is Secretary General, CUTS International, a leading research, advocacy and networking group and can be reached at psm@cuts.org

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