TCS Daily

'We Have All Lost'

By Richard Tren - September 15, 2003 12:00 AM

CANCUN, Mexico -- "We would have gained; all of us. We have lost; all of us."


These are the words of the EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy speaking in his press conference after the collapse of the WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun. Although the EU is no real friend of free trade, Lamy is correct in his assertion that we have all lost. Unfortunately the citizens of poor countries, particularly in Africa, have lost the most.


Almost every commentator and trade expert expected that, if the trade talks were going to fail, they would fail over agriculture. Agriculture is certainly the most contentious issue. Poor countries have the most to gain from reform, and the political will to reform agriculture in Europe and the US is low if not entirely absent. Yet the talks failed over two relatively minor issues -- trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement.


The failure of the negotiations certainly has taken everyone by surprise and there are a number of factors at play. Most NGOs present here such as Oxfam have blamed the US and EU for the failure in the talks. But this is disingenuous. A major stumbling block in the negotiations was that leading countries in the so called Group of 21 developing countries -- Brazil, India and China -- made demands for EU agricultural liberalisation yet would not match that with their own domestic liberalisation.


It is perhaps of benefit to some of the poor countries that they have made themselves more visible and strengthened their negotiating position with strong alliances. Yet the stronger countries in the alliances will always act in their own self interest and Brazil's refusal to change its position on some of the non-agricultural negotiations, even after the EU made some major concessions, has not done African countries any favours.


Negotiations always involve some give and take and the failure of the negations over two relatively minor issues either shows that the developing countries were not up to par in their negotiating skills or they simply did not care enough about achieving an agreement in Cancun. The failure also points to a lack of good management of the negotiating process and some blame should be shouldered by the Mexican chair.


The failure of the talks is doubly frustrating because an agreement on agriculture was in sight. Both Pascal Lamy and the EU agriculture commissioner Frans Fischler were adamant that they would have reached agreement if they had ever been able to negotiate. It's easy to say that after negotiations have ended, but either way it is highly likely that progress would have been made.


Most poor countries have spent much of the last two years negotiating the trade related aspects of intellectual property rights, or TRIPS agreement. The balance between protecting the rights of drug patent holders and ensuring access to essential medicines has been an ongoing and highly emotional affair. This issue was resolved shortly before the Cancun negotiations began, but as these countries have limited negotiating capacity they are likely to have been under-prepared on other issues. The irony is that the agreement on TRIPS is not likely to help the poorest countries simply because drug patents were never really the problem in access to drugs. More than 95% of the WHO list of essential drugs are off patent and yet access to these drugs is abysmal in most of Africa because of the grinding poverty and lack of infrastructure.


The failure of the Cancun meeting means that progress towards trade liberalisation is even further away than it was. If African countries want to escape poverty they have to embrace open markets and free trade. Unfortunately among the negotiators there seems to be an almost unanimous attitude that trade is a zero -- or even negative -- sum game and that liberalisation only ever incurs costs, never benefits.


African countries are missing an important opportunity to participate effectively in the one organisation that can help them increase trade and liberalise their own economies. No one doubts that the EU and US are hypocritical when it comes to trade: preaching free trade, but practicing protectionism. But the citizens of African countries have been let down by their own negotiators who allowed the talks to fail on minor issues and missed an opportunity to make progress on the real issue: agriculture.


Richard Tren is a director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a health advocacy organization. He lives in South Africa.

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