Will Doha, like Dracula, come back from the dead?

August 9, 2008

Like the good Count of Transylvania, the so-called Doha Round of trade negotiations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) collapsed twice — in Cancun in 2003 and in Potsdam in 2007 — only to come back from the dead.

But has the silver stake that will render Doha truly and really dead finally been driven through its heart by the unravelling of the most recent "mini-ministerial" gathering in Geneva?

When the Uruguay Round that established the WTO was negotiated from 1986 to 1994, the developing countries were largely bystanders.

Governments were dragooned into it by the threat that if they did not come in on the ground floor, they would be subjected to a painful accession process should they decide to join it later.

Preferring the devil they knew, most signed on a document that subordinated all dimensions of a nation's economic life to the goal of expanding international trade.

From Seattle to Doha

By the time the third ministerial of the WTO rolled around in late November 1999, developing countries had come to a collective realization that they had bargained away significant space for development and were in no mood to agree to launching another round to liberalise global trade, as the big trading powers demanded.

At the same time, farmers, environmentalists, workers, anti-HIV-AIDS activists, and other sectors of civil society globally were up in arms against the doctrine of "trade 'uber alles'" — as Ralph Nader described it — that was enshrined in the WTO.

This synergy resulted in the meeting's spectacular collapse.

The fourth ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001 saw developing countries subjected to tremendous pressure to agree to the launching of a new round in order to "save" the global economy following the September 11, 2001 events.

The bitter experience of being subjected to divide and conquer tactics in Doha proved to be a turning point for the developing country politics in the WTO. Alliances were formed — among them, the Group of 20 led by Brazil, India, South Africa and China, to demand cuts in developed country agricultural subsidies and greater access to developed country markets, and the Group of 33 led by Indonesia and the Philippines to push for the creation of "special products" that would be exempted from tariff reductions.

The lead-up to the 2003 Cancun ministerial also featured debates among social movements engaged in the WTO process. Some NGO's entertained the idea that the WTO could serve as a mechanism to bring about development and that the designation "Doha Development Round" provided an opening.

Others argued that Doha had shown that development was far down the list of concerns of the big trading powers and that the central task was to derail the WTO negotiations, or to "get the WTO out of agriculture", as the international peasant organisation Via Campesina put it.

The NGO reformers' case was not helped by the US and EU, which became even more inflexible when it came to cutting their massive agricultural subsidies.

If lack of organisation led to their being outmaneuvered in Doha, effective coalition building enabled the developing countries to outmanoeuvre the developed countries in Cancun.

Realising that the WTO was no longer a playground the US could control along with the EU, US trade representative Robert Zoellick described the debacle in Cancun as one where "the rhetoric of the 'won't do' overwhelmed the concerted efforts of the 'can do'".

A few days later, he warned, "As the WTO members ponder the future, the US will not wait: We will move towards free trade with can-do countries."

That was taken to mean that the US would now concentrate its efforts in obtaining bilateral free trade agreements.


Over 2004 and 2005, negotiations revived, with both the US and the EU trying a new tack. The two had brought in Brazil and India, the leaders of the G20, into a formation called Five Interested Parties (the US, the EU, Australia, Brazil and India), which for a time managed to contain the opposition.

The EU and the US agreed on an approach whose contours were etched out in the so-called July 2004 Framework that the EU and the US forced through, with the acquiescence of G20 leaders Brazil and India: minor concessions on agricultural subsidies in return for big concessions from the developing countries in opening up their industrial sectors and services.

The Declaration of the Hong Kong ministerial in 2005 was based on this inequitable approach, but developed countries played the old divide and rule game by giving different sweeteners to different parties.

The Hong Kong ministerial ended with a deal in place but with massive dissatisfaction among developing country delegates.

The Hong Kong declaration, however, masked continuing, indeed widening, divisions that were very difficult to bridge. In fact, in July 2006, a few months after the deal in Hong Kong, talks broke off in Geneva and were suspended for the rest of the year.

The final, final collapse?

The collapse of the"G4" talks in Potsdam placed the Doha Round on life support. Faced with the prospect that any further postponement of a conclusion to the round would make the organisation he headed irrelevant, WTO director general Pascal Lamy took a gamble and roused the fatally weakened organisation to another late summer tryst in Geneva, this time to a "mini-ministerial".

Decisive in determining the outcome was Washington's opposition to a very reasonable G33 formula tabled by India for imposing protective tariffs against agricultural import surges.

The US brought on another WTO disaster with its single-minded focus on dumping its subsidized surpluses on foreign agricultural markets.

Not helpful in bringing about a deal was Lamy's manoeuvre of limiting the decision-making to seven countries.

The WTO is now in a worse position than before, with the prospect that it will evolve like the old League of Nations in the 1930s — dead for all intents and purposes.

Nevertheless, just as Dracula could get resurrected in a B-movie sequel, there is no 100% guarantee that the Doha Round and the WTO will not rise again.

Walden Bello is senior analyst at Focus on the Global South. Mary Lou Malig (Marylou@focusweb.org) is coordinator of Focus' Trade Program. Abridged from the August 5 Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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