Africans reject new issues pending resolution of old problems

GENEVA: African trade ministers have objected bluntly to any expansion in the work of the World Trade Organization (WTO) until sufficient measures are taken to increase poorest countries' participation and benefits.

The global trade body began its second Ministerial-level Conference here on 18 May and WTO officials hoped to win broad agreement to push ahead with plans to expand its remit and accelerate liberalization of cross-border investing. Ministers last met in December 1996 in Singapore.

Since then, said WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero, his organization had concluded basic telecommunications and financial services agreements and implemented an accord on information technology. The combined value of that work, he argued, "equates to a new round (of trade negotiations) - the finance and technology round for the 21st century."

Address existing problems

Rather than rush to take on new areas of economic globalization, the WTO should focus on resolving pressing issues confronted by the poorest countries, African ministers said in a joint statement on 18 May. These include increasing market access for their exports and bolstering their ability to change national laws in line with existing WTO agreements.

"The institutions and human resources for trade administration in our countries have been severely stretched by the demands of implementing our obligations and exercising our rights in the multilateral trading system," they said.

The multilateral trading system had contributed to economic growth over the past 50 years, they said, but "our continent continues to be bypassed with regard to the benefits of the remarkable growth and greater global economic integration of recent years, and hence continues to experience marginalization from the global economy."

The system's performance should be reassessed in light of Africa's experience and no new expansion of the WTO's workplan passed until existing problems have been tackled, the African ministers argued.

Vital provisions of agreements favouring the poorest countries - including those embodied in the Final Act of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations - have been pushed down the WTO's list of priorities, they complained. These include a decision on measures to mitigate potential hazards for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and net food-importing nations of the South.

Ministers also lamented what they saw as abuse by industrialized nations of "technical barriers" to Third World exports - including anti-dumping, sanitary and environmental measures.

"All WTO members need to implement the Agreements in both spirit and letter without creating unnecessary barriers which appear to discriminate against the geographical source of products," said Kenyan trade minister J.J. Kamotho. Kenyan exports of fresh fish, cut flowers, and fruits and vegetables face such obstacles, he added.

"Nothing will be ruled out or ruled in at the end of this meeting," WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said. Rather, a statement to be adopted at the end of the Ministerial Conference "is a political text and not about bringing any new issues or putting an end to existing problems." Ruggiero, aware of dissatisfaction as his organization seeks broad agreement to expand its remit, told ministers, "We must be unwavering in our efforts to help LDCs increase their participation, both in this organization and in the trading system as a whole".

Trade accounts for only a small share of economic activity in most LDCs, official figures show. On average, exports and imports account respectively for about 9% and 16% of these countries' gross domestic product (GDP) - compared with 24% and 26% for developing countries as a whole. LDCs' exports have grown far more slowly than world trade over the past 20 years, and their collective share of world merchandise exports consequently has declined.

Outpouring of emotion

Some 132 countries have sent delegations to the three-day conference here. Participants - thousands in all - were scheduled to wine and dine courtesy of the Swiss government on 19 May, to commemorate the multilateral trading system's 50th anniversary.

While WTO officials have been upbeat about the celebrations, anti-free trade activists shattered Geneva's calm over the weekend - setting cars on fire, attacking McDonald's and other fast-food outlets, and hurling stones at banks - to protest what they saw as a trading system benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Despite these protests, Ruggiero hailed past successes and declared, "More than ever before, the multilateral trading system offers a force for stability and cooperation."

Nevertheless, he added, "we live in challenging times where there is still an unacceptable level of poverty and inequality...The single most important message we can send out from the meeting is a message of unity, (which) means shared responsibility."

No major initiatives were expected but the meeting's outcome would provide a key indication of how countries expected to proceed with the global trade agenda. (IPS/L. Machipisa)
(Third World Economics No. 184/185, 1-31 may 1998)