Vol. 5 Num 549 Mon. December 12, 2005  

WTO failure seen costing rich and poor alike

If global trade talks in Hong Kong collapse, analysts fear the world risks being drawn into an era of escalating protectionism with major consequences for commerce, the economy and the poor.

At stake is the Doha agreement on tariff and subsidy reductions which would open the world's richest markets to the poorest, particularly in agriculture. Supporters say it would alleviate poverty and help close the wealth gap.

In a worst case scenario, failure at the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) sixth ministerial conference, which opens here Tuesday, would result in the Doha round failing to meet its implementation deadline set for the end of 2006.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned failure in Hong Kong would hurt both Western and developing economies alike, and in particular many African countries.

Asian Development Bank President Haruhiko Kuroda says failure will seriously impact on economic growth in Asia, and WTO chief Pascal Lamy says an impasse will damage the WTO's credibility and make it hard to start fresh negotiations.

None of them want to see a replay of the last ministerial meeting in the resort of Cancun, Mexico in 2003.

That conference broke up in acrimony with the WTO's poorest members claiming they were being short-changed by developed nations who demanded access to their markets for goods and services but offered little in return.

Mindful of a possible repeat, world leaders have recently sought to play down the chances of a major push towards a Doha conclusion in Hong Kong.

Instead, the criteria for success is now being measured through brokering a trade deal to help developing nations.

If such a deal was possible it would require compromise and moderation from all 148 WTO members, with some agreement to allow developing countries access for their agricultural products to the world's richest nations -- the United States, Europe and Japan.

It would also help offset dependency on aid, which has been touted as a possible substitute for poorer nations if they are denied access to the rich markets in the West. It is an approach which has not found favour.