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Sunday, 18 December 2005  
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WTO: Failure again

The 6th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on multilateral trade negotiations ends in Hong Kong today. Reports arriving from there point to another failure, another repetition of the Cancun fiasco two years ago.

The Hong Kong meeting just like its predecessors at Cancun and Seattle is a sequel to the talks held in Doha, Qatar in 2001, which ended inconclusively. It was expected to finish the Doha Round of talks by January 2006.

The Doha Meeting and the subsequent meetings failed due to the failure to reach consensus on modalities of world trade, especially on the need to curb agricultural subsidies in the developed world while the developing countries were forced to give up all subsidies.

There is no level playing field in trade between the developed and developing countries. The latter has been waging a continuous struggle for justice and fair play but the developed nations have tried to evade the issue, by bringing new issues and demanding new concessions as if the concessions they have forcibly extracted do not suffice.

The draft agreement has a major input from the developed countries as against minimal input from the developing countries. As before the developed countries, principally the United States and the European Union want to trade off agricultural subsidies with other issues like investment.

The undemocratic nature of the proceedings at Hong Kong stems from the fact that certain provisions included without consensus in the draft text cannot be taken out without consensus of all 149 member states attending the Conference. This is a sequel to the "green room" meeting process to which only a few developing countries are invited.

While the developing countries are pressurised to orient their economies towards export promotion and opening of the internal market rich countries deny market access to developing country agricultural products and also subsidise their agriculture so that even domestic agriculture fails in the developing world.

In consequence the share of the developing countries continue to be minimal. For example Sub-Saharan Africa with more than 10 percent of the world population captures only 1 percent of the global export market share. If it receives just one more percent of the market share its annual exchange earnings would rise by $70 billion a sum twenty times more than the amount of aid it received in 2003.

Besides agricultural issues the developed countries have promised to amend the TRIPS agreement to enable poor countries to access medicines at affordable rates, reform regulations to end dumping of their subsidised agricultural exports and curb non-trade barriers preventing market access to rich countries by developing nations.

All these promises remain unfulfilled. Moreover, the developed nations are imposing new conditions and tying up other non-related issues in an attempt to thwart the realisation of the Doha Development Agenda.

This calls for more concerted efforts by developing countries. Only a united effort on their part could compel the developed world to retreat. The developed nations have so far managed to put the developing nations on the defensive . The time has come for the developing nations to take on the offensive in the WTO, which tends to strangle them.


Bureaucracy, centralism and failure

In the Sri Lankan context bureaucracy has always been associated with centralism and failure. Take for example Grade One school admissions.

The former Education Secretary talked loudly about corruption at school level and took upon herself the enormous task of Grade One admissions to popular schools. What happened? With less than a fortnight remaining in the Year 2005, these admissions have not been finalised yet.

The whole exercise has turned out to be a fiasco with corruption being transferred to the Ministry from the schools. The entire process was almost secretive with no transparency at all. Parents were not allowed to appeal in person and question the procedures of admission.

The appeals were limited to filling an ill thought-out questionnaire. The new Minister should be thanked for giving back to the school principals the power over school admissions.

Another glaring example of bureaucratic bungling was tsunami relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Even after a year the tsunami victims are languishing in temporary shelters with no permanent housing . The entire exercise was once again centralised and handled by bureaucrats and novices - personal friends of those at the very top.

It seems the powers at the very top were only paying lip service to devolution while tightening a centralism of the worst kind.

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