WTO At Hong Kong

Hong Kong Battles Uncertain Outcome

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng at the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong


There are two unsurprising facts about the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation which opened here in Hong Kong last Tuesday. Fact number one: Hong Kong's Wan Chai District, which includes the magnificent Convention Centre where the conference is taking place, looks like a town under military siege. According to media reports, more than 9000 extra security personnel have been brought into the city for the conference. Fact number 2: no one can predict the outcome of this conference. The two make for either a frustrating or exciting time in this mini state dubbed Asia's World City.

Fact number one arises from the established tradition built over the WTOs ten year existence that the ministerial is as much a battleground as a venue for debate and negotiation. The most trenchant battle was the 1999 Seattle Ministerial, which saw protesters in running battles against state and federal security forces, set the tone for future battles. The proverb, "since men have learnt to shoot very far birds have learnt to fly without perching", best epitomizes the relations between the WTO and its millions of adversaries around the world. Every year, the WTO chooses cities that are difficult to get to except from within their own regions. These cities are also relatively easier to police due to their geography.

The last three WTO Ministerial conferences, in Doha, Cancun and now Hong Kong, have been held at seaside locations on peninsulas and this means the protestors cannot approach the conference venue except through the cordon of barricades thrown up in their path. Hong Kong is no exception. When we arrived here at the weekend, after a 24 hour journey, we saw security people working through the night to impose the barricades. By Tuesday morning, the ring of steel had been completed for the opening ceremony.

So far, protests have been rather quiet, mostly because the HK city authorities have wisely created a more protest-friendly posture than previous host cities. It has reserved a beautiful park opposite the Central Library for protestors to do their own thing. Whether this will be sufficient will be dictated by how things unfold. In 2003, the Cancun meeting had been fairly quiet until a Korean farmer committed suicide in public. Already, Korean farmers have protested that they have been treated unfairly by Hong Kong immigration officials.

The second fact, the uncertainty of the outcome of this meeting is not because of the action of protestors and Korean suicide farmers. The uncertainty arises from the huge differences between developed and developing countries in what they expect from the meeting. Indeed, in many ways, these differences are fundamental because they stem from the different conceptions of the role of trade in development, if at all, and how that role should be exercised.

When the WTO was born in January 1995, the hope was that a "rules-based" trading system would enable world trade to be regulated fairly in a manner that would make everyone a winner. To achieve this, it was hoped that developing countries would be allowed to sell their products, mostly agricultural produce in the developing world while the developing world would be allowed to sell its products, mostly finished or industrial goods, to the developing countries.

Ten years, later, developing countries find themselves always struggling to have their issues given priority treatment at the WTO. On the contrary, the issues that are of interest to the developed countries, especially the US, the European Union, Japan and Canada are always treated as priority. Furthermore, even though the rules of the WTO allow for developing countries, especially those grouped as least developed countries, to be given special help, in practice, the rules applying so far, have tended to hurt the interest of all developing countries, especially the poorest ones.

In addition, the WTO has included many other issues that are outside the traditional definition of trade in its work. These areas include many things, such as banking, financing of businesses, etc, under many guises. Indeed, at the first ministerial meeting in Singapore, the WTO suggested negotiations in four areas known that most developing countries thought were outside trade. Known as the Singapore Issues, these were  investment protection, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation. The disagreement over these issues have poisoned the atmosphere of international trade negotiations and resulted in the failure at the Cancun Ministerial.

However, the point that draws protestors to WTO meetings and causes such frustrations for developing countries negotiators is the proved perception that WTO policies HAVE created more poverty among the poorest citizens of the developing countries. This is because when developing countries open their markets to the rest of the world, goods from developed countries quickly overran locally made ones and this causes unemployment and loss of livelihoods in the developing countries.

On the other hand, the developed countries have not lived up to their side of the bargain because they have still not open their markets for the agricultural goods from the developing countries. They do this by two main methods. The first is by insisting on very high standards in the safety of the produce entering their countries and they keep changing these standards. The second method is through the provision of subsidies to their own farmers which ensures that the produce from the developing countries cannot compete abroad. This is why the Korean farmer killed himself in Cancun.

The worst case of the effect of subsidies is cotton. For a small number of very poor African countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, selling their cotton on the world market, especially the USA could be the catalyst that takes many of their farmers out of the deep poverty zone. But the US pays its cotton farmers more than FOUR BILLION US DOLLARS every year. This means that US farmers are able to produce more cheaply and sell more cheaply thus undercutting farmers from Burkina Faso. It is this double-talk on the part of developing countries, especially the USA which draws thousands of protestors to WTO meetings.

Unfortunately for everyone, reporting the WTO and trade in general is hardly ever neutral. For example, you can tell from this column that I don't think WTO rules are fair to developing countries. Other reporters also take positions on these issues but there are two main points to note. The first is that there are not many journalists who will tell you, as I have just done, that they have taken positions on this issue. Secondly, the journalists whose reporting support the positions generally adopted by developing countries are in the majority and command huge readerships and audiences. For example, the media here come in three types. One set has set up offices and studios at the centre and they include the usual suspects, the BBC, CNN, AFP, Reuters, etc. There is not a single African media organisation; not even our collective effort as exemplified by the Pan-African News Agency, PANA. The second category is composed of journalists whose organisations sent them here completely with huge budgets that allow them to range far and wide in looking for their stories. These include reporters from all the major newspapers in the West and some big regional players from India, Pakistan, etc. The third group is made up of journalists from developing countries and they are only here because Western organisations and governments have sponsored them to come.

I am not alleging that every Western journalist is a supporter of what their governments' stance in these negotiations, and indeed many of them do question their governments. However, few of them question the fundamental ideas on which the battles both here in the Convention Centre and in the streets are being fought. There is little debate over the fact that genuine openness would benefit everyone, but the lopsided liberalisation that is being forced on the developing countries can only mean increasing profits for the huge companies from the rich countries and more poverty for poor countries. This is why the barricades are up and will remain until trade justice and human rights gain the priority spot at these meetings. The struggle continues!