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WTO on the wrong path

WTO on the wrong path
The WTO negotiations are currently in a very critical phase before the Hong Kong Ministerial. In the Norwegian debate, trade in agriculture has understandably been in focus. There are however, other important areas which can be decisive for the development of societies – for both developing countries as well as Norway. Until now, the interests of big multinational companies have dominated the negotiations. This is contrary to the stated goal that developing countries should be given priority in this round of negotiations. It is also contrary to important social considerations in our own country.

Our starting point is that trade is no aim in itself, but a means which, under the right preconditions, can be decisive for economic development. Trade should be subordinated to other basic social values, such as health, working conditions, the environment, cultural diversity, food sovereignty, technology transfer, and the possibility for developing countries to protect their national industries until they are able to compete on the international markets.

No country has ever been able to develop by concentrating on agriculture alone. The development of a manufacturing industry and a comprehensive services sector are necessary to fight poverty and under-development. This in not reflected in the on-going negotiations on trade in services (the GATS agreement), non-agricultural goods (the NAMA agreement) and intellectual property rights (the TRIPs agreement), where narrow corporate interests and governments of the North are putting undue pressure on developing countries to open their markets for multinational companies.

The result of this development can be de-industrialisation in the South and reduced possibilities to develop public services under national and democratic control. At the same time, it can also contribute to undermining welfare services in our own country, by turning them into commodities on the international markets.

To describe our right to protect our domestic food production as a main reason for poverty in the South is, to put it mildly, a distortion. Norway already imports half of the food it consumes, and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have duty-free access to its market. In spite of that, it is the agribusiness of the EU and the US which have captured the Norwegian food markets. This tendency will only be strengthened if the EU and US ‘offers’ in the agriculture negotiations are accepted.

The critique of the right for every country to produce food for its own consumption also fails to recognise that the EU and US ‘offers’ in agriculture first and foremost are being used as a means to achieve market access for their services and goods in developing countries. A great part of their offers in agriculture are theoretical tariff cuts and a shift of subsidies from one box to another. This will contribute to locking developing countries in as producers of raw materials and non-processed products – and by that preventing their economic development.

The current WTO negotiations are on the wrong path. They are characterised by the ideas that unlimited free trade is the road to growth and prosperity for everybody. There is no historic evidence which supports this. International trade negotiations should therefore change path and be based on the following principles and demands:

• There is no reason to create horror scenarios on the possible breakdown of the negotiations. No deal is better that a bad deal. If one really wants to reach an agreement which serves the interests of the poor and the people at large, time should not be the main obstacle.

(Statement published on 9 December 2005. It was signed by 27 organisations, including 8 national trade unions, all important peasant and rural organisations, a number of solidarity, development and other organisations. Combined, these organisations represent more than 700.000 members (or more than 20 per cent of the adult Norwegian population) and the letter represents an important break-through in the building of a broad WTO-critical coalition in Norway.)