by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva,9 Nov 99 (IPS) -- The 37 countries unable to afford a permanent office in Geneva, where the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is based, plan nevertheless to make their voices heard at the ministerial meeting of the global trade body to begin late this month in the U.S. city of Seattle, Washington.

Namibia's ambassador in Brussels, Z. J. Ngavirue, said the group of nations would submit proposals for the declaration to be signed by the ministers to meet Nov 30 to Dec 3 to determine the future of the multilateral system of trade, and to decide on the launch of a new round of trade talks.

Ngavirue and delegates from the other 36 countries gathered in Geneva at a meeting organised by the WTO and financed by Great Britain, Norway and Switzerland, which ended last Friday.

The countries lacking representation in Geneva are Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Belize, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Chad, Dominica, Gambia, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, the Solomon Islands, Laos, Macao, Malawi, the Maldives and Mali.

The list is completed by Namibia, Niger, Papua New Guinea, the Central African Republic, Fiji, Saint Kitts-Nevis, Samoa, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Surinam, Swaziland, Togo, Tonga, Uzbekistan and Vanuatu.

Financing a diplomatic mission to the WTO in Geneva means an annual bill of at least one million dollars, said former Jamaican trade negotiator Anthony Hill.

And that amount would barely cover the costs of a bare bones representation dedicated simply to monitoring WTO activities, without even attending to more than 10 other United Nations agencies based in Geneva, he pointed out.

For many countries, one million dollars represents a significant part of their public finances. For example, it would be equivalent to more than two percent of what Laos spends on public education, three percent of what Belize spends, and 10% of Vanuatu's education budget.

That fact conspires against the WTO's claim to "universality" as the international regulator of the rules promoting the liberalisation of trade, Hill said.

Of the 37 countries unable to afford a permanent office in Geneva, 28 are members of the WTO, while the remaining nine have observer status.

Due to ethical reasons, these countries - unable to follow the debates in the WTO and frequently having no idea of who to turn to for advice to defend their interests - must not be left out, said Rubens Ricupero, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The situation has been aggravated in recent weeks, as the countries have been absent from the discussions in Geneva forming part of the preparations for the ministerial conference in Seattle.

[But even those represented in Geneva and present at the WTO, do not know what is going on in the 'green room' consultations revived at the WTO under the new Director-General, Mr. Mike Moore, and they have voiced their complaints about lack of transparency even to members at the formal General Council, and the informal heads of delegations meeting, without any satisfactory explanation, beyond Moore's statement that it is difficult to negotiate with large groups.]

Moore, whose mandate began in September, invited the 37 countries to last week's meeting in Geneva, for a 'Geneva week', to give them the opportunity to participate in the preparations and to receive information on the technical assistance made available by the WTO and other international agencies.

At the end of the week of briefings and meetings for the 37, Moore said that 30 or 40 ministers from countries that have never taken part in WTO ministerial conferences in the past would be present in Seattle.

Hill, in charge of organising last week's assemblage in Geneva, said Moore had promised the ministerial conference of the Group of 77, which represents developing nations, to work in favour of the incorporation of the least developed and poorest countries into the multilateral system.

During last week's informational sessions, the chief demand set forth by the representatives of the 37 countries was for technical assistance.

The secretary-general of Mali's Ministry of Industry and Trade, Harouna Niang, mentioned the case of developing countries with limited export capacity, which he said needed technical assistance as soon as they were informed of the opening of markets to their products.

Edwin Laurent, Saint Lucia ambassador in Brussels, emphasised the disadvantages arising from the reduced size of the economies of the least developed countries. For example, Swaziland's capacity to export 500 tonnes of beef a year puts it at a distinct disadvantage to countries that make large shipments.

And the 43,000 tonnes of bananas exported yearly by the Caribbean island nation of Dominica pales in comparison to Ecuador's four million tonnes, Laurent pointed out.

Most of the least developed countries face severe structural disadvantages as well, he added, even in comparison with other nations of the developing South.

The diplomat pointed out to Moore that among Caribbean nations, there was wariness regarding the WTO, which they did not feel they "owned." The multilateral system has failed to acknowledge the problems of small countries, he stressed, which face serious disadvantages.

Indeed, Laurent added, such concerns have been ignored throughout the entire history of the WTO and its predecessor, the Uruguay Round agreement.

But he said that last week's meeting would lead to a change, because for the first time, "we are putting forth proposals" to be incorporated into the declaration to be signed at the Seattle conference.

And also for the first time, the WTO will be "a completely universal organisation, rather than a club." (SUNS4549)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .