Focus: Trade Wars - The superpower elite that sidelines the poorest nations

I found myself right at the heart of the world's most powerful organisation during the final phase of the Uruguay Round trade negotiations in Geneva in 1993. Along with other reporters I was privy to the deliberations of the world's superpowers. But the majority of Third World trade ministers had no such access: they were forced to wait for hours on end in the coffee bar, begging the emerging journalists to tell them the latest developments in the negotiations.

Little has changed at the WTO. Some 30 of its 134 members still can't afford to base anyone in Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world. Others, such as Bangladesh, have just one official for WTO issues. Geneva was allowed to keep the WTO after the Uruguay Round because Switzerland promised to finance a low-rent centre for developing country governments. Nearly six years later this has still to materialise.

The WTO is aware of the problems poor nations have in coping with the trade bureaucracy, and is setting up computer links to the WTO from the least developed countries. However, according to Claudia Orozco, a Colombian trade official, "the problem is not a lack of information but too much of it". Apart from the reams of documents produced by the WTO only comprehensible to experts, there are some 40 committee meetings held at its HQ every week. "It's like a multiplex cinema. You turn up and decide which film you are going to watch," said another official from a developing country. Rich countries boost their Geneva presence by flying in experts whenever meetings become technical, a luxury none of the developing nations can afford.

The inequalities of the system become even more apparent when a developing country runs into a trade dispute with a rich nation. One of the reasons Latin American countries let the US fight their case with the EU over the banana trade was because they couldn't afford the legal costs involved. Colombia is spearheading a campaign to set up a "legal aid" centre for trade matters for developing countries. The UK is one of a handful of countries to have contributed to a fund to finance the project, but other OECD countries have not yet offered their support.

Sometimes being poor can have its advantages. The Bangladesh ambassador to Geneva, Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury, last week successfully brokered a deal in which the new WTO leadership is likely to be shared between Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand and Mike Moore of New Zealand.

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