NGOS denounce 'chair' at WTO symposium

Geneva, March 18 -- More than 20 NGOs, both from industrialized and developing countries Thursday took strong exception to 'insulting' remarks made Wednesday by a panel chairman at the WTO High Level Symposium on Trade and Development.

The joint statement by the NGOs expressed outrage at the manner in which the session on "Linkages between trade and development policies" was conducted by the chairperson Mr Paul Collier (Director, Development Research Group, World Bank) as well as the content of his concluding remarks.

The NGOs said that during the session, Mr Collier gave more than ample time for the main speaker (Mr Fred Bergsten) and the first discussant (Dr Keith Bezanson) but indicated time was up for Prof. Wontak Hong from Korea and Prof. Deepak Nayyar from India (even though they had spoken for a shorter length of time).

This caused a tense exchange between the chairman and Prof. Deepak Nayyar, who protested that he was not being treated equitably. After this protest, Prof. Deepak continued speaking.

Towards the end of the session, Collier had made a lengthy concluding speech in which he mainly presented his own views instead of the customary practice of providing a chairman's summary of the proceedings, the NGOs complained.

One of the dominant themes of the symposium (and the one before it, on trade and environment) had been the acute difficulties faced by African countries and least developed countries due to the way the trading system and trade rules had marginalised them so that these countries derived very little share of benefits, if any.

Far from reflecting the views of several participants who spoke on this theme, Collier in his conclusions accused African countries of having marginalised themselves in the WTO in five respects:

* "You didn't participate very much in the WTO;

* "You pressed for special and differential treatment, which does not meet your needs.

* "Your aspirations are for closed liberalisation within a region and not the world. This is a dead end. You should go for open regionalism.

* "Where African counties have had trade liberalisation, it has been low credibility liberalisation as it has not been locked in, so it discourages investment. The Swedish delegate has said the next Round should lock in their liberalisation."

* Collier also claimed that there is also a hostile environment in Africa. African countries are now more focused on trade in commodities as this hostile environment had killed off other activities.

With a lot of finger wagging, Collier then added that the African elites did not want to undertake economic reforms because the status quo benefitted them.

"In political science we learn under what circumstances the elites would bite the bullet and make changes," he said. "Political science tells us that changes come when the elites get scared." He said the Africans ought now to be scared, because the future will be one of protectionism in the United States, unless the Americans could be offered something in a new round of trade negotiations.

On this last point, Collier was reemphasising the view of the panel's main speaker, Fred Bergsten, who had earlier warned developing countries that they would face "huge risks" of an American protectionist backlash if they did not agree to a new WTO trade round.

Bergsten had urged developing countries to provide the developed countries with "increased and eventually full access" to their markets as part of a bargain with the US and EU not to erect new protectionist barriers. He had also told developing countries not to pursue demands for special and differential treatment.

"We find Collier's comments most insulting to African countries and developing countries in general," the joint NGO statement said. "They constitute blatant inaccuracies, tantamount to blaming the victims, whilst protecting and furthering the interests of the real culprits of protectionism."

"If the great threat to the trading system is coming from protectionist forces in the US, as claimed by Collier and Bergsten, then it is the political elites of the US that should be asked to bite the bullet and initiate change in the US."

"We cannot understand why the chairman had instead blamed the Africans or other developing countries for US protectionism as they are the victims," the NGOs said.

"By calling on developing countries to appease the US or pander to its demands under the threat that otherwise the US would turn protectionist against their products is tantamount to intimidation and blackmail to get developing countries to agree to a "New Round." In such a new Round, the aim is clear: developing countries will be pressured into giving "increased and eventually full access" of their markets (in Mr Bergsten's words) to the developed countries, the statement noted.

The NGOs also pointed out that instead of condemning the powerful country or countries which were alleged to be having protectionist tendencies, the chairman "was asking weak countries to give in because the strong country threatens to break international trade laws by going protectionist."

"He is calling on the developing countries to adopt an unacceptable policy of "Appeasement", which the civil society of the South (and indeed of the North too) would find most intolerable."

The NGOs resented strongly the Chairman's "blatant attempt to shift all the blame of Africa's poverty and marginalisation to the Africans themselves, whilst totally denying the roles played by the international economic system and by the World Bank itself as well as the IMF and also the WTO."

The NGO said it was untenable for a World Bank staff to take such an "arrogant and inaccurate position when even the World Bank president has admitted to NGOs that poverty had worsened in Africa despite the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the Bank and IMF, and the Bank's own chief economist has severely criticised the "Washington Consensus" policies imposed on indented countries."

In their joint statement, the NGOs demanded an apology from Mr. Collier and an explanation from the WTO chief on the choice of the main speakers and the contents of their speech, as also a plea to the WTO secretariats not to facilitate "such intimidating tactics".

According to the NGOs, Collier's comments were particularly insensitive in view of the statements made during the symposium by many participants, from both South and North, about the need to redress the inability of developing countries to adequately participate in the WTO's decision making processes due to lack of resources.

Several African delegations had also spoken of the lack of benefits to their countries from the Uruguay Round and the lack of Northern countries' fulfilment of their obligations to developing countries.

Egypt's permanent representative to the WTO, Amb. Mounir Zahran, had said at the same session that his country had fundamental difficulties with the Uruguay Round agreements.

"If we cannot resolve them, we cannot justify further liberalisation in developing countries. In an earlier session, the representative of Zimbabwe also said the Uruguay Round did not yield benefits to developing countries, which also had the lack of capacity to fulfil the requirements.

The great irony, said the NGOs, is that anti-development positions on several points were highlighted in a symposium where the focus is supposed to be on development.

"This leads us to the strong suspicion that the session was intended not for a scientific or objective review of trade and development policies, but to be used as a platform for propaganda and prescriptions to pressure developing country delegations to accept a "New Round with new issues", especially negotiations for an investment agreement."

The NGOs have called on all official delegations, from South and North, "not to succumb to such propaganda and prescription." (SUNS4398)

The above article was originally published in the South-North development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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