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“Who wants to do the possible?” asks Martin Khor at Our World Is Not For Sale strategy session in Geneva

Leo Broderick (V.P. of the Board of the Council of Canadians) and I arrived in Geneva, Switzerland yesterday for a full week of anti-WTO activities organized by Geneva-based groups and the Our World Is Not For Sale network. We’ve been a member of OWINFS since the beginning in 1996 and the group, which this year brings over 200 members from 45 countries to Geneva, has played a pivotal role in stalling a final WTO deal since negotiations collapsed in Seattle exactly ten years ago today. While on paper, this is not a negotiating meeting like Hong Kong, Cancun or Doha, and the Doha “anything but” Development Round is still stalled, an OWINFS strategy session today talked about where work needs to be done to challenge some dangerous issues being pushed on developing countries by the usual big players.

Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre, started off the day with a brief history of WTO resistance and an update on the current negotiations. He urged us to redouble efforts on developing issues, which, though hardly present in the Doha round. U.S. and EU offers on agricultural subsidies are insignificant and even if they were reduced to zero, Khor suspects they’d be shifted from blue to green box exemptions (see WTO definitions), referring to the former as a “weapon of mass destruction” for how the resultant depressed food prices are actually killing people in developing world.

Special products and safeguard mechanisms for developing food exporters are being watered down in the current round also. “You’re almost dead before you can use it,” said Khor. “You’re already three quarters dead and then you can only use it  for a few products and for a limited time.” If the U.S. gets its way, he added, these countries will be better off with no agreement at all.

Currently, a country can set tariffs on food imports at high levels to protect local produce, and keep them in place for as long as they feel they need it. The G33 bloc of developing nations within the WTO is pushing to keep it this way, pointing out that the U.S. has used special safeguard protection hundreds of times but pretends that it never has.

INDUSTRIAL TARIFFS

Khor described the Non-Agricultural Market Access talks as worse than agriculture. The Uruguay Round of the GATT decided on a 28 per cent average reduction on tariffs, explained Khor. This allowed developing countries to reduce them to zero on products they needed to import while hiking them on others that might hurt their domestic economy. This was how all developed countries got to where they are today.

Under NAMA, you have to bind all tariffs at a low rate because of a confusing new Swiss formula that sets quotients for developed and developing countries, and that can only be called evil, said Khor. According to a Third World Network report on the issue:

According to trade officials in the know, bound tariffs of developing countries applying the formula would average 11-12% and only a few tariff lines would be above 15%, after implementing what is in the Chair’s paper. These are very low industrial tariffs for developing countries, whose industries are at an infant or nascent stage and are unlikely to compete with imports without significant tariffs. The developed countries had much higher tariff levels when they were at the developing stage.

Developed countries under Nama would barely have to reduce tariffs, which are already a low four per cent on average. Least Developed Countries, said Khor, are exempt but not off the hook because for them there are Economic Partnership Agreements, many with Europe, that insist on zero per cent tariffs on 80 per cent of products! We should undo NAMA if we can, he added.

In good news, Khor referred to the anti-WTO coalition as “the glamour movement” because of how many difficult victories we have won over the year, joking that “who wants to do the possible?” It’s a message Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch echoed later on in her update on financial services and the GATS, but more on that later.