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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: WTO deceives the poorest of the poor

WTO deceives the poorest of the poor

By Bruno Odent; Translated by Steve McGiffen

Translated Saturday 24 December 2005, by Steve McGiffen

Hong Kong. Friday’s compromise around a ’development package’, a collection of measures designed to ’favour’ the Least developed Countries (LDCs) is an unacceptable farrago of deception in reality destined to do just the opposite.

The adoption, by the sixth ministerial conference of the WTO, of a ’development package’ in favour of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) appears to have been achieved on Friday. The representatives of the richest countries immediately celebrated “a step forward”. The European negotiator, the Commissioner Peter Mandelson, saw it as a “clear message sent from Hong Kong to the world’s poorest countries and those most looking to develop.” His American counterpart, Rob Portman, added that “We want to be as generous as possible. The reality, sadly, is much more down to earth, resembling an unacceptable farrago of deception. The contents of the ’package’ in question are composed of three ingredients: a complete exemption from customs duties and quotas for all merchandise exported from the 32 LDCs which are WTO members, with the exception of weapons; a system of aid for trade and the agreement, already concluded before the summit, on access to generic medicines.

Arrangements unfavourable to the South

Only the first of these can have any beneficial effect on activity and employment in these countries, bearing in mind that they will not be diversifying away from their specialisation, on a certain number of market niches, often under the aegis of Northern corporations, which prevents them from having access to a form of development which really conforms to their own needs. Moreover, the ’generosity’ of the states of the North will be contained within certain limits, imposed in the final compromise by the United States or Japan, which succeeded in removing certain ’sensitive’ products from the agreement.

The second arrangement is still more grotesque: the product of a bad compromise between the famous ’aid for trade’ of the White House (that’s to say, in crude terms: “Trade, and the god of the market will aid you”) and the traditional public support for development, which remains a reference point for others; ’aid for trade’ will be subject to a whole series of conditions concerned with ’good governance’. In other words, access to this support, valued at around $4bn, will depend on the willingness of those who run the countries in question to open their markets, privatise their state-owned enterprises, or limit their public expenditure.

With the third arrangement, we go beyond the grotesque to enter the realm of the most abject hypocrisy. The accord approved a week before the summit in effect authorises the LDCs to import generic medicines when they lack the capacity to produce them themselves. But this fine gesture is nothing more than that. On a concrete level, all that’s happening is that a measure already agreed as a temporary dispensation in 2003, of which the principal characteristic is that it has been shown to be impracticable. This is because it was qualified with what amounts to a barrier to access built from technical conditions and bureaucratic demands, a barrier so high that no poor country, confronted with the fear of sanctions, has dared to have recourse to the system. NGOs such as Act Up or Médécins sans Frontières (Doctors without frontiers) have not ceased, in the week since the accord was signed. to express their indignation, denouncing a ’criminal compromise’ arrived at in the face of pressure from the multinationals. Remember that, according to the UN’s anti-Aids organisation, almost 10,000 people a day die from the disease, of whom 95% live in poor countries.

The message of ’generosity’ addressed to the poor countries is in part addressed to those elements of public opinion which are concerned by the widening of global inequalities, but they are motivated above all by the most trivial intentions: it’s a matter of bringing about a change in those developing countries which are reticent so that they will more readily open their markets to the services and manufactured goods of the North. Parliamentarians from several countries, present in Hong Kong, thus drew attention on Thursday to the return of negotiations under the GATS dossier (General Agreement on Trade in Services) which was believed to have been adjourned at the start of the summit in the face of ’blockages’ created by the countries of the South (see l’Humanité, 16 Dec). And there you have laid out the contents of the fools’ market proposed.

Subordination to liberal norms

In the proposed resolution put together by WTO director general Pascal Lamy before the summit, are measures which in practice would lead to a maximum subordination to liberal norms on the part of the member states, committing them to a respect for ’benchmarks’ of good governance. “In fact, it’s understood that in this way they are obliged to open all their sectors without restriction to the appetites of Northern corporations, for energy production, water, education, and health care,’ says Caroline Lucas, British Green Euro-MP.

This kind of format, if adopted in the final text, would open the way to a dispossession, for the states of the South, of any space for autonomous action and would in fact allow Northern multinationals to share the real governance of these countries amongst themselves. This would be the establishment of a form of intensified neocolonialism, which shows the extent to which the emergence today of a debate around the French law on the teaching of colonialism’s ’positive aspects’ is without doubt about more than an intemperate and reactionary nostalgia.

Numerous dossiers deferred until 2006

The probable adoption of a ’development package’ could, however, be the only point of agreement achieved at Hong Kong, other dossiers, which still appear far from being resolved, being deferred to 2006. A preliminary draft of the South’s concessions in the wake of negotiations, if confirmed this weekend, would however allow Hong Kong to be celebrated, according to the terms employed pre-emptively by Pascal Lamy, as “a step” towards an ever more generalised process of liberalisation.

As for the positions on agriculture which oppose, in the first rank, the EU and the emerging countries grouped at the core of a G20 lead by Brazil, these appear much too difficult, as I write, to enable a compromise to be adopted here at the close of the summit. The G20, which, supported by the US, is demanding a halt to all export subsidies and a substantial reduction of tariff barriers, is in this way firing off a torpedo barrage so explicitly aimed at what’s left of the Common Agricultural Policy that it does not appear, in any event, acceptable to the EU’s negotiator however open he may be (and as one knows he is) to a through liberalisation of trade.

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