Expert View: Fudge won't feed the world's poor

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The Independent Online

I've been given a sneak preview of the menu at this week's meeting of the World Trade Organisation. It seems that the only item on it is "WTO fudge", and it's not even a fair trade product. It's made from highly subsidised milk, sugar and butter from the EU and US; visiting trade ministers, non-governmental organisations and the media had better have a sweet tooth.

Subsidies, export credits and quotas don't usually grab the headlines, but as the WTO descends on the Mexican beach resort of Cancun, the humdrum world of trade negotiations is caught in an uncomfortable spotlight.

With no agreement in place on agriculture, the world's poor look set to play their usual cameo role at Cancun. As long as rich countries subsidise agriculture to the tune of $311bn (£198bn) a year and deny improved market access to poor countries, it will be difficult to judge these summits as anything other than failures.

In truth, the real battle to reform world trade was lost by the developing world almost a decade ago with the establishment of the WTO itself. It was designed to be nominally democratic in that member states would have an equal vote and ministers would have their say on big decisions at set-piece "Ministerials".

The reality is very different. Rich countries dominate the process and almost always get their own way. They set the agenda and second-guess the others both during Ministerials and in rolling talks at the WTO base in Geneva.

Democratic principles matter little when you command the resources to steer and undermine negotiations. A look down the list of countries' permanent staff in Geneva reveals that Japan has 23 technical experts, the US 14 (covering just the WTO) and the EU 18. Mali, Mozambique and Burkina Faso have none at all.

And it's not just the differential in technical capacity that makes the WTO a flawed debating chamber for the world's poor. It is the way in which rich countries overload the "to-do list". This mission creep has been a feature of the organisation since it was set up. It now has over 20 different agreements, not to mention a "work in progress" tray dating back to the last trade round nearly 10 years ago.

To compound matters, the EU and others keep introducing new issues to extract future concessions from current negotiations. It's a bit like someone stealing your TV and offering it back only if you agree to buy a DVD player you never wanted.

Then there's the increasing informality in negotiations. Transparency WTO-style is about cocktail party whispers and the "green room" where arms are twisted, aid deals proffered and ministers bullied. This is well documen-ted in Behind the Scenes at the WTO by Fatouma Jawara and Aileen Kwa (Zed Books).

But even if the process were perfect, trade talks would still not reflect the enormous disparity between rich and poor. This is because trade rules are derived from primitive horse-trading that assumes parity between parties.

There are of course countless other faults, tricks and imbalances that characterise the WTO. Not least of these has been the ability of developed countries to portray the current trade round as pro-development. The rhetoric at Doha nearly two years ago turned out to be an act of branding to get developing countries to agree to a deal in the aftermath of 11 September. The sweeteners proffered back then have left a bitter taste in the mouth.

The ensuing failure to deliver on the promises made at Doha can only be remedied by rewriting the WTO rulebook to say that the trading system should be about meeting the needs of the world's poor over the protectionist interests of the industrial North.

Steve Tibbett is director, policy & campaigns, War on Want