After Seattle...What next?

The third World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Seattle, United States, adjourned on 3 December without agreeing on an agenda for the next round of multilateral trade negotiations. While tens of thousands of protesters marched in the streets against the WTO and globalization, inside the conference centre the situation was hardly more harmonious. Mr Hartwig de Haen, Assistant Director-General of the FAO Economic and Social Department, headed the FAO observer delegation to the conference. He offers the following comments on why the talks failed and what impact the failure will have on agricultural trade and world food security.

Stevedores stow bags of maize in a cargo ship in Mozambiquex
FAO/11049.1/F. Mattiolix

Q.Why could the ministers not agree on an agenda for further trade negotiations?

One of the reasons was that the poor countries felt marginalized. Look at the structure of the conference. Although all delegations had an opportunity to speak at the plenary session, the main event was the negotiations. These included working groups on a variety of topics, which were open to all WTO members. But the real negotiations took place in the so-called small negotiating group, composed of the major trading countries.

While there were developing countries in this group, they represented only themselves - not the developing world as a whole. WTO member states that were not included in this group felt marginalized and frustrated. The Organization of African Unity stated very clearly "we are not ready to join in any consensus because we feel marginalized and we are excluded from discussions on issues that are vital to our countries and to our future". I believe they were speaking on behalf of many other countries as well.

Q. What was the main concern of developing countries?

The developing countries that submitted their positions to the conference said that before starting a new round they wanted to see more effective implementation of the Marrakech Agreement (which ended the Uruguay Round in 1994). Their particular concern is the ministerial decision calling for compensation to least-developed and net-food-importing developing countries hurt by trade liberalization, at least during the transition period. FAO agrees with this position and in fact has said repeatedly that there has been no implementation. On various occasions full implementation was requested and now some countries want automatic and mandatory implementation.

Q. Will there be another round of multilateral trade negotiations?

There is no alternative to another round. Built into the Marrakech Agreement is an obligation to start negotiating on agriculture and services on 1 January 2000. Perhaps the WTO will have to be creative about how they formally define the beginning of the round. A complicating factor is the US presidential election in November 2000. The European negotiator said that he doesn't see how there can be negotiations if the United States doesn't have a solid position, and conventional wisdom says that it will not until after the new president is sworn in, in January 2001. As a result, many people are predicting a one-year delay in beginning the round.

Q. What do the poorest countries hope to gain from the next round?

The poorest countries are more concerned about compensation than about being full partners in the international trading system. I think that is a bit unfortunate - the whole philosophy of international trading is that everyone benefits through comparative advantage, and in the end, at country level at least, there are economic benefits. It is clear that within each country there are winners and losers. We now know that even among countries there will be winners and losers. Still, even the poorest countries have trade. We should try to present assistance for developing countries not just as charity for poor brother and sister countries but as an investment in their futures, futures in which we hope they can make better use of their comparative advantage.

Q. What is FAO doing to help developing countries defend their trading interests?

Many countries do not have sufficient technical and legal expertise to allow full participation in negotiations. FAO holds training workshops in its member countries to help them develop their own negotiating positions, evaluate the proposals made by others, defend their interests effectively and participate fully in the negotiations. We are fine-tuning our assistance. After Seattle, for example, we know that such training should take place within the countries rather than at the regional or subregional level. We at FAO have to recognize that developing countries are not speaking with one voice. We have to continue making a distinction between different interest groups within the developing world and we have to tailor our analysis and assessment for each of the groups.

Q. What does Seattle mean for the world's hungry?

The hungry have not made progress in Seattle, but no one else has gained either. A delayed gain is better than no hope of gain. The chance is still there.

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4 January 2000

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