ILEAP initiative names its first executive director

A non-governmental grouping established to provide legal and economic assistance on trade-related matters to developing countries is set to take off with the appointment of its first executive director. However, daunting challenges likely lie ahead for the ILEAP initiative, which will be discharging its mandate within an international trading system that is weighted against the South.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: The ILEAP (International Lawyers and Economists Against Poverty) initiative, a not-for-profit, non-governmental initiative to provide “timely, responsive and practical legal and economic expertise” to developing countries that will assist them in achieving trade-related development and poverty reduction, has announced the appointment of its first executive director, Dominique Njinkeu.

Njinkeu is currently Deputy Director of Research at the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) in Nairobi, Kenya. He joins ILEAP following an extensive career in the field of development, with particular reference to macroeconomics and development financing; linkages between trade, regional integration and poverty reduction; and international negotiations. Previously he served as Research Coordinator of the Reseau Politiques Industrielles in Dakar, Senegal, and taught at the University of Yaounde Cameroon, Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada, and Southern Illinois University, USA.

In various messages from other individuals and non-government groupings posted on websites, ILEAP and its new executive director have been encouraged and assured of support. But the tasks facing it are even more daunting than when the idea was first mooted.

Better protection for the weak

The idea of such a grouping to provide non-governmental inputs from the legal, economic and related professions, on the lines of Medecins Sans Frontieres in the health area, to assist developing countries in the sphere of trade and trade-related issues was mooted by Professor Gerry Helleiner in his Raul Prebisch Lecture at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 2000, and pursued at a meeting in Nairobi last year.

In that lecture (see TWE #248), Helleiner came out against a new round of WTO negotiations, even if labelled as a “development round”, against any multilateral negotiations as a single undertaking. He had called for reform and reorientation of the WTO, including its governance to make it more transparent and accountable.

“What the WTO most requires, then, is not now an attempt at a new round of ‘global’ negotiations which, even if labelled a ‘Development Round’ for public relations purposes, would probably, under present arrangements, only recreate the imbalances and inequities of the last round,” said Helleiner.

Prof Helleiner in the lecture had recalled that the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO was itself the product of a round (i.e., the Uruguay Round) that was launched with much fanfare about the symbolic importance of its location in a developing country. “And where did that lead?” he asked.

“Rather, what is required is a pause in current processes - to permit a deliberate reconsideration, even a formal redefinition, of the fundamental purposes of the organization; and a thorough and independent review of its current capacity to achieve them.”

Helleiner, one of the world’s leading, if not the leading development economist and authority, had called for a UN-appointed and independently funded group to review and reconceptualize the WTO. He was also very critical of the under-funded and inadequate technical assistance programmes, most of which are aimed at enabling developing countries to comply and frequently aimed at “simply selling WTO rules”.

However, so long as the WTO and the international rules system continue along this path, there is a need, as an immediate option, “to seek better protection for the weaker members of the international community on a case-by-case basis,” Helleiner said and suggested the initiative.

The Canadian academic had also asked civil society to mobilize itself and, rather than use street protests to shut down the WTO, bring the pressure of ideas to effect changes, though conceding that history showed that changes often came as a result of major crises.

Incapable of reform

If anything, between the concept behind ILEAP being outlined in the 2000 UNCTAD Prebisch Lecture and now, the trading system and the international rules governing economic systems have become more weighted against developing countries. The WTO has shown itself, over the period, as incapable of any meaningful reforms, even the adoption of very simple procedures for their meetings, the norm in all international organizations.

Work on improving internal transparency in decision-making at the WTO, in its Ministerial Conferences and the preparatory processes leading to them, remains stalled; and the secretive “green-room processes” to bully the few dissenting member countries continue.

Also, since Helleiner voiced his views at the 2000 lecture, the developing countries have been railroaded into launching another round of multilateral trade negotiations, which has indeed been called a “Development Round”, the term being repeatedly used to the point of becoming a slogan.

However, not only is there very little “development” content in the negotiating agenda of the round, which was launched in November 2001 at Doha, but in the year since its launch, the few promises that had been held out have proved to be like “promises of kings writ on water” (a folk saying in many parts of the world).

Transparency and inclusiveness in decision-making remains a will-o’-the-wisp at the WTO. Implementation issues and special and differential treatment for developing countries have missed their deadlines for implementation, and the WTO appears unlikely to achieve anything in the extended deadline.

The trade body has also failed to meet a deadline set by a separate decision at Doha (but not part of the single undertaking), the Ministerial Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health. After 14 months, it is yet to deliver on the promise that appropriate decisions would be taken to enable countries with inadequate or no manufacturing capacity to use the averred flexibilities of the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement to provide affordable, essential medicines to their peoples.

The profit interests of the big pharmaceutical corporations have proved stronger than public-health interests of the poor. And there is a continuance of the spectacle, seen just before Xmas at the WTO, of debates and negotiations among trade diplomats on which diseases people should be saved from through access to cheap medicines, and from which they could be allowed to suffer and die if they do not have the money to buy the monopoly-profit medicines.

Voices of criticism and critiques inside the UN system about the asymmetries and inequities of the trading system and its rules have been silenced, partly by the careerism in the secretariats and the interests of the very rich elites in the developing world too, but much more by the actions of the WTO leadership and the real masters of the WTO, the US and EU, who have been intervening into the initiatives of other UN system organizations, so that a single view postulated on the power of major industrial nations and their ‘bullying’ tactics prevails.

An example has been the fate of a UNDP (UN Development Programme)-sponsored report on trade, “Making Global Trade Work for People”, which has had extensive inputs from many leading trade and development economics specialists, and is the outcome of a wide range of consultations with civil society and others.

The views on the trading system in the report are nothing very revolutionary, and some of  the  views, including on the non-trade issues cluttering up the WTO and making it the focus of public criticisms,  have been expressed in stronger terms by many leading economists, including in  some areas (like TRIPS, etc)  by  free-trade  ideologues  like Jagdish Bhagwati. However, even this level of dissent has proved unpalatable.

According to diplomatic sources in Geneva and New York, the WTO had protested and complained about the report to the UN Secretary-General, and the US State Department too applied pressures on the UNDP and its administrator, Mark Malloch Brown.

As a result, the report, whose launch was originally scheduled in Geneva, was now to be launched at a function by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which had funded the consultation processes. (SUNS5267)                                             

From Third World Economics No. 298 (1-15 February 2003)