COMMENTARY: Time to think again on trade talks

Posted: 31 July 2008

Author: John Madeley

The immediate cause of the breakdown of the Doha Round of trade talks between ministers in Geneva this week was disagreement between rich and poor countries over the degree to which poor countries should be allowed to protect their farmers from imports. But the real reason was that the talks were a betrayal of of the development agenda, says John Madeley.

The WTO has a device known as the Special Safeguard Mechanism. This is a system that allows developing countries to raise their import tariffs to protect their farmers if imports surge over a certain level.

At the end of the first week of the talks, when collapse seemed imminent, the WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy issued a text that hehoped that he would be acceptable to all the ministers.

But groups representing about a hundred developing countries - the G33 group of developing countries, the African Group, the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group and the Small and Vulnerable Economies - issued a joint statement saying the Lamy text was not good enough.

Organic farmer, India
Organic farmer, India
Organic farmer in India ploughing green manure into his fields. Photo © Organic India
It was not just India, as the United States tried to claim, but some two-thirds of the WTO's 153 members countries who believed that what they were being offered favoured Western countries and disadvantaged developing countries. For it would only have allowed them to safeguard products after they had imported a considerable volume. It could have meant that for some products, domestic production would be wiped out before they could stop imports. This was not acceptable, and the talks collapsed.

Unfair rules

This issue goes to the heart of what the Doha Round was supposed to be all about - people centred development. If poorer countries are todevelop they need to pursue policies that improve food security, increase incomes and improve livelihoods. Trade may help - but not ifthe rules are unfair. And developing countries were offered nothing in Geneva that would correct the unfair rules.

But behind this issue, however important, there are other issues on which there are differences between rich and poor - including rules and procedures governing manufactured goods, the service industries, and specific agricultural products such as cotton and bananas. Developing countries again want changes that help not hinder their development efforts.

Why does the Doha Round go from here? It has not been the development round it was supposed to be. Launched in November 2001, in the wakethe collapse of the infamous WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999, it was supposed to have been concluded by the end of 2004. But early on in the talks, it became clear that Western countries wanted to make it a trade liberalisation, free trade round. This was a betrayal of what Doha was meant to be.

It is time to draw a line under the Doha Round of trade talks and to start afresh. The round, like the WTO, has become synonymous with failure. The WTO cannot keep on with a succession of collapsing talks. The WTO's 153 members need to agree to launch a genuine development round.

John Madeley is the author of numerous books on agriculture, trade and development. He is a contributing editor of this website.