Just how important is the WTO Ministerial Conference to an ordinary person?

BY BENARD AYIEKO Exits Pope, enters the 10th  World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference (MC10). The first of its kind to be held in Africa. WTO is the sole global international organization that deals with the rules of trade between nations. It’s main objective is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business of trade in global markets fairly. Highly publicized but least understood, Ministerial Conference is where the business of WTO is conducted. Ministerial Conference is the highest decision making body of WTO. The last Ministerial Conference was held in Bali, Indonesia in 2013 where the ministers in attendance adopted the “Bali package” which is a series of decisions aimed at not only streamlining trade but also allowing developed countries more options for providing food security, boosting least-developed countries’ trade and fostering general development of member states. Africa’s hope will lie in the successful conclusion of the Doha Round, the so called Doha Development Agenda (DDA), if only the round will deliver credible development outcomes. Why DDA? First, because it is in Doha where trade negotiations aimed at lowering trade barriers began. The intention was to reduce trade barriers around the world and thus facilitate increased global trade. Due to capacity constraints experienced in both developing and LDC’s, the initial objective of DDA has not been achieved. These countries suffer supply side constraints that can be addressed through negotiated Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) mechanisms. The Doha Declaration focused on the concerns of the developing countries by promising major reforms in agriculture, particularly reductions in subsidies and tariffs provided by developed countries, Non-Agricultural Market Access, Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries, among others. The DDA was to systematically correct the multilateral trading system, to make it more relevant to these economies and their people placing the needs and interests of developing countries at the heart of Doha Work Programme. However, there are fears that the current state of play reflects a major departure from the original promises of the DDA and the expectations of developing countries and LDCs. There are fears that the Doha Round will be “closed” and not “concluded” without an exhaustive agreement. This could give rise to another agenda dubbed “Nairobi Round” which has far reaching ramifications. This premature conclusion of the Doha Round will then give rise to an alternative agenda, the so called 21st century issues namely; investment, transparency in government procurement,  trade facilitation and competition policy. Hitherto, trade facilitation has been a ‘Singapore’ issue which is deemed to be one of the concluded agreements to be “harvested” in Nairobi as a “low lying fruit”. Stakeholders like civil society groups working around trade, investment and development drawn from Kenya and the African continent consent that for the outcome of these discussions to have greater impact on the masses, whom majority are domiciled in LDC’s, then the negotiations must capture development issues within the ACP configuration. Agriculture, a key issue, is a main source of national income and foreign exchange for LDC’s. Africa’s growth continues to be driven mainly by primary production and exports. These constraints have been exacerbated by a more volatile global economic and financial environment which continues to affect the growth and development prospects of poor countries, largely in Africa. An ordinary farmer who works tirelessly to produce for exports should be vigilant of the MC 10 outcome. Subsistence agriculture – prevalent in LDC’s, can play an important role in reducing vulnerability of rural and urban food-insecure households, improve livelihoods and help mitigate food-price inflation. For instance, cotton farming is at stake. In LDC’s, African cotton sector is grappling with the effect of setting minimum prices which has led to an over 20% drop in cotton prices forecast for 2015-16. This has made African countries reliant on proceeds from cotton vulnerable, denying millions of people decent livelihoods. For an ordinary person to smile at the outcome, the MC 10 should conclusively address issues of market access by LDC’s, eliminate trade-distorting domestic support, elimination of export subsidies and application of export competition disciplines to cotton, duty-free quota-free access for cotton exports and affirmation of  the development objectives of the DDA. Above all, an agreement in Nairobi should reaffirm WTO members’ commitment to conclude the DDA in line with its development mandate. This is the only way LDC’s shall celebrate Kenya’s position as the first African country to host a Ministerial Conference and an early Christmas gift perhaps. The job is well cut out for the 161 trade ministers who will be at the MC 10. To you all, I say “No deal is better than a bad deal”.

Sign Up