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WTO betrays its weakest members, charts new path

The prospects of Africa receiving a fair hearing at the 10th WTO ministerial hosted on its soil,
Nairobi, Kenya, suffered a major setback as the declaration from the ministerial showed a betrayal
of its weakest members and the charting of a new path departing from the Doha
Development Agenda *writes Kwesi Obeng.

WTO Director- General Roberto Azevedo and Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Amina Mohamed during the official opening ceremony of the WTO Ministeria Conference held in Nairobi.

WTO Director- General Roberto Azevedo and Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Amina Mohamed, during the official opening ceremony of the WTO Ministerial Conference held in Nairobi.

East Africa’s economic powerhouse, Kenya, has been a hive of activity in 2015. Nairobi, the country’s cosmopolitan
capital, closed the year 2015 by hosting the biennial ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) amidst tight security. WTO’s ministerial conference is the highest decision making body of the global trade organisation. The last conference was held in Bali, Indonesia in 2013 during which members agreed on a controversial trade facilitation pact, which seeks to fast-track the flow of goods across borders.
Held from December 15 – 18 and attended by hundreds of delegates from at least 162 countries, the Nairobi Ministerial came on the heels of two global events/personalities Kenya played host to in 2015. Pope Francis was barely out of the country after a three-day visit before the start of the 10th WTO ministerial conference. And in July, US President Barack Obama made his long-awaited homecoming visit to the homeland of his father, Barack Obama Snr.
While these high profile visits will be remembered in the years, even decades, to come, it is the outcome of the WTO ministerial conference which will have possibly the most profound impact on the quality of life of the average Kenyan and other citizens of the developing world.
The Nairobi outcome was an outright victory for big powers, notably the US and EU. In apparent rejection of the development agenda of the WTO, trade ministers failed to reach a consensus to “affirm” the Doha Round for the first time in 14 years. Launched in 2001, it was heralded as a new path that would address more concretely development issues that were of utmost concern to developing countries. The Nairobi outcome essentially abandons the development focus of the organisation to open a new chapter for the negotiation of new issues such as digital economy and investment. These are issues pushed by developed countries.


In a move regarded by many as an attempt to appease outraged developing country negotiators/representatives, the
ministers approved a new but smaller package of measures. This new but smaller package of measures include new guidelines for the financing of agricultural exports, a ban on export subsidies for agricultural products
and new access to developed markets for poor cotton-producing countries.
Major global economies have been preparing and pushing for this international trade shifts especially after the global financial and economic crises of 2008. In October, the US sealed a regional trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with 11 countries in the Pacific Rim including Japan. Presently, the US is negotiating a regional deal with the EU as well as sectoral agreements on services and the trade in environmental goods with small
groups of WTO members. The EU has concluded similar patchwork of deals with African, Caribbean and
Pacific (ACP) countries under the so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). This spaghetti bowl of small trade deals effectively marks the end of a large global trade agreement inherent in the Doha Round for example. Nairobi thus heralds the dawn of a new era in trade negotiations. Sharp divisions over the future of the Doha development Agenda almost derailed the entire conference. The compromise deal, which sent the Doha Round
firmly to its deathbed, could only be hammered out on December 19, a day after the conference was originally planned to close.
In the run up to the ministerial a number of leading developed country negotiators openly campaigned for the 14-year Doha round to be scrapped and a new system put in place. The EU for example had argued for the Doha package to be expanded to include new issues such as e-commerce and investment because these issues
“pose major challenges for today’s global trade”. The US trade representative, Mike Froman, was blunter. Froman was reportedly quoted as calling for the Doha round to be scrapped because it “simply has not delivered”. In spite of intense fightback mounted by developing countries led by India, China and African countries, the Nairobi outcome essentially puts a knife through the heart of the Doha agenda.
In spite of the huge security cordon thrown around the meeting venue in downtown Nairobi, the conference was jolted by peaceful protests by diverse CSOs and other activists against the arm-twisting of developing country negotiators and over fears that African nations and other developing countries’ interests in global

Protesters during the WTO Ministerial Conference.

Protesters during the WTO Ministerial Conference.

trade would yet again be ignored. Of course, the protests were nothing like the once mass protests that defined WTO meetings in the
mid-1990s and early 2000.
A diverse group of actors including the African Union Commission, the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICSTD), the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), University of Nairobi, Saana Institute, E15 Initiative and Trade Mark East Africa organised a five-day Trade and Development Symposium on the sidelines of the ministerial. The symposium which tackled topics such as “Trade and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda”,“The CFTA:  Toward 21st Century Trade Governance
for Africa” “Resource-based Industrialisation and Global Value Chains in Africa”and the “Impact of Profit Maximisation in Africa on Development, Justice and Environment” drew hundreds of participants daily. Rejection of the Doha Round on African soil is similar to that of the United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Durban Decision in 2011 at which the principles of equity in tackling climate change was dismantled.
Durban was to set the stage for treating all countries, rich or poor, historically responsible for causing climate change and countries which historically have contributed negligibly to the phenomenon as equals in addressing the problem.
The COP 19, dubbed the “African COP”, the first to be held on African soil essentially chucked out the key principle
of climate negotiations in the UN climate convention, the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR).
The CBDR principle recognised that developed  countries, which have been industrialising over the last 300 years, were mostly responsible for climate change and therefore ought to contribute more to addressing the problem
but not cut their emissions going forward but to alsoenable poorer countries with finance and technology to mitigate and adapt to a changing global climate.


However, the just concluded Paris climate talks, COP21, just like the WTO’s 10th Ministerial, not only lacks ambition, but also puts the lion share of the burden of addressing climate change on those who contributed the
least to the phenomenon. This did not just happen out of the blue. It is a result of the arm-twisting, threats, sweet talks that have come to characterize negotiations between developed and developing countries at the global level.
The Paris climate outcome puts the global climate on course to overheat out of control with dire consequences for developing countries, not least in Africa, where the geo-physical characteristics of the continent makes it much more vulnerable to climate change than many other parts of the world. Furthermore, this coupled with the rejection of the Doha Development Agenda, puts Africa in a bind as far as structural transformation is concerned. This year’s ministerial conference variously termed an “African ministerial” because it is the first in Sub-Saharan Africa and the first to be held in Africa in two decades yet again sidelined African interests. Rich countries led mainly by the
United States, European Union and Japan got what they wanted: open a new era of trade negotiations that moves away from the development agenda articulated in the Doha Development Agenda to new issues.
The sharp divisions within the ranks of WTO members over the Nairobi outcome was not lost on Roberto Azevedo, WTO director-general, when he addressed delegates at the closing on Saturday, December 19. Azevedo said, the elimination of export subsidies was the “most significant” thing the organisation had delivered in the area of
agriculture in its 20-year history. But this was not really the situation as evidenced by Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Amina Mohamed, chair of the conference’s plucky attempts to dispel charges that the negotiations pitted the developing against developed world and the Nairobi outcome confirmed exactly, that countries were divided along economic lines. The Nairobi ministerial also saw the approval of the membership of two new countries, Liberia and Afghanistan. Nairobi may have saved the WTO but not secured the future of developing economies.

*The writer is the Policy lead on Tax and Extractives at Tax Justice Network- Africa.

This article was first published in the African Agenda, Vol. 18 No.5. Click here for the whole edition.


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