BALI, Indonesia — Lines have been drawn as world leaders gather in Bali for the World Trade Organization’s ninth summit. On one side are the world’s wealthiest countries, including the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Canada, among others. On the other side, resistant to the proposals of this powerful bloc, stands the rest of the world: from the so-called “emerging” to developing to the least developed economies.
"Given the devastating impact of WTO policies on the agriculture and industries of poor countries, it well deserves the distrust and even hostility with which it is viewed by many developing countries, civil society organizations (CSOs), and grassroots movements across the world."
Since the 1999 Battle in Seattle, WTO conferences have been lightning rods for protest by developing countries and by progressive Northern groups as well. Across the global South — in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia — the trade-related debates during the WTO talks translate into harsh gut-level realities especially for the hundreds of millions of poor and marginalized. Rules that allow a wealthy country, the United States for example, to subsidize its corporate agriculture while barring a developing country’s state from giving support to its small-scale farmers, take on real life and devastating impact. The effects of the WTO’s trade policy are evinced by high rates of poverty and hunger, which has grown worse over the course of the institution’s 18-year existence.
Perhaps Indian commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma put it best when he told the Times of India, "We can no longer allow the interests of our farmers to be compromised at the altar of mercantilist ambitions of the rich. The Bali ministerial meeting is an opportunity for the developing countries to stay united."
When the WTO was established in 1995, joining the cabal of other global institutions that have since framed international governance—the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—its domain was trade facilitation, defined by the WTO as the “simplification and harmonisation of international trade procedures.” In short, trade facilitation ensures easier movement of goods across national borders through "open," "non-discriminating," and "non-protectionist" mechanisms.
Given the devastating impact of WTO policies on the agriculture and industries of poor countries, it well deserves the distrust and even hostility with which it is viewed by many developing countries, civil society organizations (CSOs), and grassroots movements across the world. As the official talks begin in Bali, the call of thousands of protesters camped in a nearby sports arena remains “Junk the WTO!” underscoring just how problematic and unpopular the WTO’s mandate has become.
The Bali package
The centerpiece of the 9th WTO ministerial, popularly called the “Bali package,” is a bundle of proposals on three main issues: trade facilitation, agriculture, and the concerns of least developed countries (LDCs).
Essentially, the Bali package is a step backwards for the WTO. To explain that, we must look at the history of the institution — the WTO holds a ministerial conference every two years, and the time it takes to come to agreement on the items in its agenda is a round. The latest round began at Doha, Qatar in 2001 with the unveiling of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA).
The DDA—deceptively tagged as a “development round” since it was purportedly giving priority to developing country concerns—in fact pushed for agreements and rules on new issues that many developing countries were not ready or unwilling to tackle, such as investment, competition, government procurement, intellectual property and services. At the same time, it urged developing countries to further open up their markets through elimination of tariffs and subsidies.
Developing countries found themselves burdened with negotiations on new trade issues, even as wealthy states evaded discussion of the problems raised by poor countries arising from existing trade obligations. As a result, developing countries overwhelmingly rejected the new market-oriented proposals, while pushing for dialogue and more positive results on their issues with WTO rules.
Developed countries, on the other hand, refused to accept any deal that included “unfair protectionist measures” for poor countries. Now, more than a decade later, the Doha Round stalemate drags on.
The Bali Package is supposed to be the end of that stalemate. It claims to include not only the favored issues of wealthy countries (trade facilitation), but also the concerns of LDCs. In fact, the G33 coalition of developing countries successfully pushed for inclusion of some points in its own agenda — specifically, on agriculture and food security — in the Bali talks. The G33 proposals represent efforts to extract some positive gains for developing countries especially for their agricultural sector.
But there are two problems facing the G33. The first is that, meager as their proposals are, the bloc of developed countries still wants to reject them for being protectionist. The second is that, even if their proposals passed by sheer force of numbers on the floor and outside “Green Rooms”, their gains would remain disproportionately small compared to the immense obstacles still in front of them.
The hard truth is that, no matter what happens with the G33 proposal, the trade position of poor countries would hardly improve. This is because they would be expected to play the quid-pro-quo game by agreeing to the passage of the more comprehensive (and ultimately, damaging) proposals of wealthy countries. Indeed, such a supposed “success” in Bali would possibly be used to claim that the development-focused issues raised in the Doha round have finally been resolved. Indeed, the next step after passage of the Bali package would be the post-Bali Agenda, which promises to do even worse for developing countries by pushing for further expansion of trade rules in IT products, a wide range of services, and environmental goods and services.
Pushing the interests of developing countries even further than what is possible within the WTO ministerial, a broad coalition of grassroots people’s organizations called the Indonesia People’s Alliance has organized a diverse five-day program of activities in Bali, called the People’s Global Camp (PGC). The PGC’s many major and side events have gathered thousands of anti-WTO and anti-imperialist participants from Indonesia and other countries. Workers, peasants, students, migrants, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups comprise the bulk of the PGC, having borne for decades the burden of the WTO’s skewed trade policies. They are challenging the questionable decisions being cooked by global powers in the current WTO summit.
"Grassroots movements and civil society, as they now gather outside the official venue, must continue to flex their muscles and call on developing countries to junk the WTO."
For the G33 proposals and substantial talks on the Bali package to make sense, they must be framed within a much more innovative, even alternative, agenda that can rally the support of more developing countries and provide enough groundswell for member-states to rethink the premises that underlie the WTO. For instance, food sovereignty instead of merely food security as the framework for international trading policies. Development cooperation that truly empowers developing countries rather than promoting dependence that invariably leaves them worse off. A multilateral trading system premised on development justice instead of unregulated greed and exploitation.
Governments can only do so much across the negotiating table, especially with the world’s most powerful states pushing for the passage of the Bali package as it now stands. Grassroots movements and civil society, as they now gather outside the official venue, must continue to flex their muscles and call on developing countries to junk the WTO.
The People’s Global Camp holds the torch passed from Seattle to Hong Kong, from one ministerial conference to another. In this elaborate game of trade, politics, and power, the necessary role of mass movements is to expose and counter the WTO. We must challenge it to rise to the actual needs of the vast majority of the world’s population instead of perpetuating and even aggravating unequal trade relations that have, for decades, enriched so few at the expense of so many.
If the WTO doesn’t rise to the challenge of development justice, then the world’s peoples are justified in their demand that it be dismantled.