This piece of mine appeared on the Guardian development page yesterday (plus here, I include a few afterthoughts at the end)
“The Doha round of global trade talks, launched by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in November 2001 amid a surge of solidarity after the 9/11 attacks, is experiencing the long slide into irrelevance that is characteristic of the international system, where zombie institutions and processes abound. I attended the extraordinary inauguration of the round in the Qatari capital, Doha, as an NGO delegate. US Navy Seals were patrolling offshore, and the delegates visibly flinched whenever a plane flew overhead.
The launch of the round (in contrast to the collapse of the previous WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999) owed as much to that need to show inter-governmental solidarity as to any great need for a further set of trade talks to add to those that set up the WTO at the end of the previous Uruguay round. After the hype of the launch, the talks stalled at another collapsed summit in Cancún, Mexico, and then slowly dragged to their current standstill.
Last week, the latest WTO get-together in Geneva could have killed them off, but instead proposed yet another final heave. The chances of success look minimal. Does it matter? Yes and no. Yes, because the world needs a multilateral trade system that can at least partially restrain abuses by the most powerful players. It is important to stress that the WTO is not the same as the Doha round. For all its flaws, it is a functioning institution overseeing a set of agreements on trade and investment. If anything, the debilitating experience of the Doha round has weakened the WTO, and killing off the round might strengthen it.
No, because the world has moved on to an extraordinary extent since 2001 (remember the anti-globalisation movement?) The rise of the emerging economies has made the north-south rhetoric of many players in the talks increasingly meaningless (and it was never that convincing to begin with); the trade agenda has been overtaken by climate change, resource constraints, wildly fluctuating food prices and financial crises – where the impact of WTO muscle-flexing is as likely to be negative as positive.
But if the WTO’s members ever finally muster the courage to declare the parrot round dead, some good stuff could be lost in the shape of some of the unfinished business which developing countries and their NGO supporters were highlighting so publicly in Doha, Cancún and elsewhere. That includes setting in stone rules that allow the poorest countries to export their goods free of tariffs; making sure new member countries joining the WTO aren’t bullied into making major concessions not demanded of existing members; and not forcing the poorest countries to prematurely open up their markets at the expense of their own producers and eventual developmental take-off.
So what to do? On balance, it would probably be better to declare the round dead, but the multilateral system very much alive, and shift political capital to what matters most in 2011, rather than sticking with the exhausting legacy of a 10-year-old political gesture. As for trade campaigners, don’t worry – there is a swathe of arguably more important things to be getting on with, such as regional and bilateral trade deals that favour the strongest players, the dominance of handfuls of giant corporations in many global markets, to which Glencore is just the latest addition, or the wave of land grabs, as rich countries without fertile land buy up land in poor countries on which to grow their own food, irrespective of the impact on local people. Such trade realities have always been at least as important as trade rules, and they aren’t going anywhere fast.”
Writing this piece gave me a distinctly retro/nostalgic feeling. The WTO and its ministerial meetings dominated my life from the tear gas and chaos of Seattle (1999, my first ministerial), via the high security of Doha (2001), another theatrical collapse in Cancún (2003) to the damp squib of Hong Kong (2005). In that time I learned to speak the weird gobbledygook of trade negotiators, churned out policy papers on agricultural trade, industrial tariffs and the rest, and probably spent too much time schmoozing with the lobbyists and delegates at the WTO HQ in Geneva.
As did many other NGO colleagues – so was it all worth it, if the round is now dead on its feet? I think so – NGO campaigns often seem most effective in preventing bad stuff from happening, and that’s arguably what we helped to achieve in the Doha round – working with coalitions of developing countries to see off assaults on their access to knowledge and affordable medicines (via intellectual property laws) or their ‘policy space’ (via premature liberalization). Along the way, the developing countries grew ever stronger, and the liberalizers’ supreme arrogance (and historical amnesia – see Ha-Joon Chang) began to crumble.
Overly self-important? The NGOs may have taken themselves too seriously – the real players were always the WTO members themselves, but I think we helped developing country governments in two main ways – skilled media work and contacts, and allies ready and willing to lobby the rich countries from within. In these measurement-obsessed times, this is all highly speculative – we know neither the counterfactual (what would have happened if there had been no campaigning on the Doha round), nor the attribution (what role, if any, did civil society campaigns play in what did or did not happen). But I think it made a difference. And now, please can we move on?