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HIGH VISIBILITY, AND MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Bangkok, 19 Feb 2000 -- The UN Conference on Trade and Development ended its tenth session here Saturday with more questions and doubts than answers from the collectivity of the world's governments to the main Conference theme of making globalization an effective instrument for development of all countries and all peoples.

Five years ago, UNCTAD met for its ninth session at Midrand in South Africa, with globalization as its main theme - full of hype about globalization and liberalization.

Five years later, a large majority of the peoples of the developing world are farther away from their goals and aspirations of a better life for their peoples or narrowing the rich-poor gaps within and among countries.

As the UN/UNCTAD member countries ended their "first economic conference" of the new millennium, adopting a Bangkok Declaration and Plan of Action, a collective statements of the world governments, they have talked about many things that globalization 'can' do, and 'should' do, about the opportunities and risks, about maximizing the opportunities and minimizing the risks.

But in terms of what the governments present here have agreed to do or committed themselves into doing elsewhere, the documents are at best very modest, and often equivocal -- such as on possible proposals on market access for LDCs, or the international community "may wish to consider ways and means of identifying ..... unpayable for possible action by creditors."

Perhaps the powerful may pay heed to the closing appeal of Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero, and abandon extremism in economic policies, to construct a better world economic order.

It is a big perhaps, though. But if translated into actions, may amount to a miracle of the 21st century.

[The plan of action, UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero told a closing press conference in response to a question, is a compromise among all countries and shows the elements of what is possible to put on paper at this moment at Bangkok.

[The secretariat's proposals for the conference had set much higher standards. "We not only advocate that all products from LDCs should receive quota-free and duty-free treatment on industrial country markets, but that they should be 'bound' in the WTO and thus be irreversible and provide security and predictability. We advocate not only zero tariffs and no quotas, but changes in rules of origin, which now prove to be a much greater obstacle than tariffs. Some of these countries have to import raw materials or inputs to process and export them, but the rules of origin disqualify such products for favourable treatment.

["On debt, we want to go much beyond what has been achieved. Our basic proposal is over the sustainability of the debt (and debt servicing), which can be assessed technically, but must be done by independent panels, independent of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) who themselves are creditors. And the results must be accepted mandatorily both by creditors and debtors.

["But the Plan of Action showed what member countries are prepared to accept at this stage."]

It was difficult in this conference -- full of inter-active debates, seminars, round-tables and side-shows about every subject -- to come across a government delegate from the South who in private did not express disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the international system of trade and development and inability for the countries to advance and deliver more to their peoples.

Many frankly admitted that the countries of the South had been taken for a ride in the Marrakesh agreements concluding the Uruguay Round and in the hype about globalization.

Conference delegates and representatives who found it difficult to take a very critical view of the trading and financing systems, cheered and applauded inside the halls, and even more outside in the corridors and at some NGO events, those who challenged the dogma and the heads of organizations promoting them - the IMF, World Bank and the WTO.

And yet it is difficult to find in the conference documents that governments negotiated and adopted, any reflection of this deep dichotomy in global polity or how the increasing divides in the world are going to be addressed.

In his closing statement to the conference, Ricupero said: "Globalization is not an unstoppable change sweeping inevitably across the face of the world... at least in part, it is a work of deliberate construction" (thus implying that globalization may be stopped or reversed unless governments changed the 'constructs', outlining the minimum needed to ensure 'real reciprocity' among nations, and warning of the 'at best mixed prospects' for progress in the aftermath of the Seattle WTO failure.

While the governmental accords and willingness to act on critical issues remained at the level of vague promises and statements, UNCTAD is emerging out of this conference with a greater, analytical, role for reform of international financial institutions and securing financial stability for the global economy, but very ambiguous and weak mandates, even in terms of analysis, in the areas of trade as an instrument of development.

The vested interests of the major trading nations of the North in maintaining their advantages within the current system, and the US determination in particular not to give UNCTAD any role or credit, the differing situations and conflicts of interest of developing nations, individual and groups of them, have no doubt contributed to this outcome.

If governments of developing nations, and even more their civil society or national business sectors, had come to Bangkok in the hope that after the debacle at Seattle Ministerial Conference of the WTO, the major nations would make some gesture about their earnestness to address the problems of the developing world in the trading system, they have gone away in disappointment.

The President of the Conference, and the designated successor to Mike Moore as Director-General of the WTO in Sep 2002, Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister, Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, in his closing statement conceded that not much progress had been made here on the trade front.

Given the 'fact' that technically negotiations have begun at the WTO (as mandated) in agriculture, services and the mandated reviews of other agreements (TRIMs, TRIPS etc) - areas where the North does not want to give up its benefits through protection, while looking for more from developing countries - it was perhaps too much to expect them to give any ground even in generalities in these areas.

But even on such questions - under the rubric of 'implementation' problems of the developing countries (which involves correcting the imbalances and inequities of the Uruguay Round and its agreements on the developing world) or helping the least developed countries by way of non-reciprocal market access (through duty-free, quota-free entry for the exports of these countries) - there has been much resistance and attempts to use this concession to get something else from other developing countries - such as the concerted effort by five EU members, in the interactive debate, to push for investment negotiations at the WTO.

Though British development minister Claire Short and her colleagues from Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Belgium, presented it as in the best interests of the developing countries, the EC trade negotiators have made clear that what they have in mind is benefits for their corporations by way of trade and investments, before they would make any concessions in agriculture.

This is nothing new for trade negotiators of developing countries at the WTO.

But the cynical use by the powerful entities and countries of the common concern of international community on the situation of the Least Developed Countries to try to extract concessions from other developing countries, and the ruse to divide the developing countries, has been so glaring in an open forum like UNCTAD, that civil society from the South and North, even those who understand the importance of 'rules-based' systems, are going away from Bangkok more determined than before in their hostility to the WTO and the expansion of its remit through new negotiations and new issues. (SUNS4611)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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