WSF Karachi – events on March 28, 2006

First a link: TERRAVIVA, the Independent Newspaper of Polycentric World Social Forum, Karachi. March 24 – 29, 2006

Developing countries: TRAPPED BY WTO, by Stanislaus Jude Chan – KARACHI – “More than 30,000 farmers from India have committed suicide over the last five years!” says one participant at a Monday discussion on the post-Hong Kong World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial summit. Yet another claims that the total figure of self-inflicted deaths of poor farmers in South Asia stands at “more than 2.5 million” to date.

Whatever the real figure, one thing is clear, the speakers said — poor, developing countries are receiving the short end of the stick with WTO agreements – or rather, non- agreements – and are frustrated to death – in some cases, literally.

The US and the Bush administration has used free trade agreements as a “forced trade agreement” and “fast track authority” in its own favour, while disregarding the interests of poorer countries in its WTO negotiations, says Abid Suleri, assistant executive director of Pakistani NGO Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad (SDPI).

In agriculture – among the most contentious issues due to resistance of developed country markets to the entry of products from agriculture-producing countries — as well as other industries such as textiles, there is much unease over the United States and European Union’s employment of protectionist policies on imports while they demand the liberalisation and “opening up” of poor countries.

These practices allow the economic superpowers to “dump” products, leading to the stifling of local industries and further poverty, hunger, and economic dependency as a result, activists say.

Claiming that “the US practises double standards” and makes “scapegoats” of poor nations “under the guise of WTO”, Suleri questions the WTO’s mission of “eradicating poverty”, as reflected in its “make poverty history” tagline.

But harping on the WTO isn’t going to make it disappear, says Dr Tarzil Haider Usmani, director general at the Ministry of Science and Technology in Pakistan. “The process of globalisation and the WTO are inevitable, and we shouldn’t bang (our heads) against the wall.”

“What must be done, though, are two things: One is domestic sovereignty, which we (the poor countries) must keep,” he says. “The second thing we must do is to protect against trade reforms and liberalisation that is not in our favour, through the use of social safety nets and protectionist systems. Otherwise, the WTO will do more harm than good.”

Critics say the WTO has evolved into a juridical-institutional umbrella that the richest countries and their major corporations use to create rules they impose on other countries. Within this organisation, the focus is on opening up markets instead of concerns like reducing hunger, unemployment, or social inequality, they add.

The WTO and its ministerial negotiations in recent years has focused on raising the volume of international trade dominated by transnational corporations, eliminating defensive barriers of poor countries, and consolidating control over the production and trade of agricultural products.

The WTO also looks inward rather than out, at the delegates that represent the people at WTO negotiations.

With a lack of “skilled and qualified representation”, there is a grouse among the farmers and workers that these negotiators who are supposed to be working for the best interest of the people, faced with the problems of the people on one hand and pressures from world superpowers on the other, are engaging in “double-speak”.

Abid Suleri says some negotiators are “so ashamed” that they have caved in to the pressure by the rich nations in the talks, and are “unable to face the farmers”.

Developing countries and NGOs are concerned that the US and Europe’s persistence to discuss the “new issues” aimed at opening up their markets for foreign firms and their products with minimal government regulation could result in massive job loss for local markets.

National sovereignty would also be compromised as governments lose a large part of the right to make domestic policies in key economic and social areas.

Since the formation of the WTO, many countries – the poorer ones like Cambodia and Vietnam included – have been trying to get into it to take advantage of the benefits that come with being part of the global trading system. But coping with the WTO terms, which may force them to uneasy terms, is far from smooth sailing.

Still, participants at the WSF say developing countries also must learn to use their numbers at international fora. “We have to learn and realise that three quarters of the WTO is made up of developing countries,” Abid Suleri. “For this to work, we must unite to the commitment that another world is possible.”

Added Suleri: “We are the majority. And we must see to it that the majority wins.”

more articles about the WSF:

War teaches tough lessons;

Disaster as business;

Right to self-determination;

Making space for alternative media;

WSF sells ideas – and goods.

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