Fairness is not an ideology. Some people are haves and some people are have nots. This situation is real and requires a real response. Yet in the World Trade Organisation over 10 years of negotiations have still not delivered greater fairness and, dangerously, the world is losing interest.
Ministers of trade from around the world met this weekend in Geneva for the eighth time since the World Trade Organisation (WTO) opened in 1995. Decisions on international trade rules affecting millions are meant to be made at such conferences, yet type a basic internet search for 'WTO' today and you are more likely to find the World Toilet Organisation than any news coverage of the Ministerial conference dubbed MC8.
Like watching a bad film to the end just in case the director or actors redeem themselves MC8 was a milestone in the wonky world of trade economists and lawyers. Between bi-annual conferences wonks are in charge of crunching the numbers and re-interpreting the legal texts. For three glorious days every two years politicians can make major decisions. Except they don't. This time politicians were determining the fate of an organisation that has failed to deliver on any of the commitments made 10 years ago. Now, by their inaction, politicians have directly forced a re-design of the global trade system. But the cast has discredited the film and no-one will watch the sequel.
For 10 years the media and charitable organisations have applied pressure to defend the poorer countries - and by definition the weaker party in the negotiations. To some extent this has paid off for although it has not helped to establish fairer rules, more unfair rules have not been imposed. Without this public attention there is a real danger that rich countries will abuse their position as economic powerhouses and make rules suiting themselves while condemning the poor to poverty.
There is no better example than the one commitment hailed as the 'litmus test' of fairness in the WTO: that of getting rid of illegal subsidies to US cotton farmers. The subsidies dampen down the world price of cotton and destroy Africa's advantage in one of the few products it can successfully grow and competitively export. Yet the Americans won't negotiate cotton without the Brazilians, Chinese and Indians at the table and the Brazilians, Chinese and Indians won't come to the table unless the Americans negotiate on manufacturing. While the powerhouses lock horns the Africans suffer.
Before MC8 the poorest countries in West Africa shifted their negotiating position to respond to this political reality and proposed that the US simply freeze cotton subsidies at the all time low that they are at today. The US responded with what are being termed empty gestures and an attempt to buy off west African governments with $16 million in development aid for the cotton sector over four years - over 60 times less than what West Africa stands to gain from the removal of US cotton subsidies over the same period.
Abolishing US cotton subsidies needs to be part of the new WTO's script. With the global economic crisis hitting both Europe and North America hard the fairness argument might not win. The sheer unaffordability of continued subsidies will most likely deliver the happier ending that Africa has been calling for in 2012.
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