WTO success
Why this may have been the most promising ministeral yet.

By Mark Ritchie, President IATP

September 23, 2003: Forget the spin you have been reading in the papers about the “failure” of the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun last week. It was one of the most successful international meetings in years because it redefined how trade can benefit the poor and how the developing world can be real players in these negotiations. In fact, if policymakers and global trade negotiators were paying attention, Cancun could lead the W.T.O. into a new era where trade talks actually bring about fair trade, and the benefits to both the developing and the developed world that they’ve been promising.

What did we learn in Cancun? Three things: First, that equitable and effective global trade agreements can’t be negotiated when the balance of power rests exclusively with the wealthiest nations. Second, that civil society has a legitimate and useful role in these discussions. And third, that fair trade, trade that ensures that producers are paid a fair price and workers are paid fair wages, is the world’s best hope for a sustainable trading environment.

First, there was the International Fair Trade Fair*, the first ever gathering of producers from around the world that market their goods and services on the basis of global trade rules written to benefit the poor. Over a hundred producer cooperatives and networks from every continent showed off their child-labor free soccer balls, no-sweatshop clothing, along with dozens of fantastic kinds of organic coffee, tea and chocolates.

This historic event opened with an evening reception with over a thousand people – the hottest ticket in Cancun the entire week. At the close of his opening remarks, Mexican Foreign Minister Ernesto Derbez (who also chaired the WTO meeting) joined forces with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu to pound open a piñata full of fair traded goodies.

The second remarkable success in Cancun was the WTO meeting itself. From one vantage point it looks like a failure – most of the countries refused to go along with the demands made by the cabal that has been running things (quite nicely thank you) up until now. It was the first time that the World Trade Organization began to feel like a truly global organization – not just an awkward arm of the US government’s foreign and domestic economic policy.

I have been to four of the WTO Ministerial meetings, three of them on the official US government delegation as an NGO (non-governmental organization) representative. In previous meetings I have seen small hints of shifting power relations at the WTO, but Cancun was a breakthrough – a giant shift in the balance of forces in global politics.

On critical factor in this is the growing working partnership between many governments, especially from the developing world, with non-governmental and civil society groups that provide much needed technical analysis and just plain old political support to governments straining to keep up with the blizzard of proposals and frenzy of meetings that make up a critical element of US government strategy to keep other countries off balance and on the defensive in these talks.

Another important contribution to the shift in power inside the WTO is the reality of 10 years of trade de-regulation. On the basis of computer projections the poorer countries were convinced that signing away their right to regulate imports and exports would miraculously turn into rapid economic growth and the transformation of their societies into something along the lines of the United States – or at least like Singapore or Korea. The reality now rules. Most countries have gone backwards as a result of the last round of trade talks while the worst of the unfair trade practices, like the dumping of agricultural products by U.S.-based grain companies, has significantly increased.

Most governments no longer have the luxury of just hoping for the best. The reality of trade rules and regulations dictated by the US and Europe has finally sunk in. Cancun might just be the real beginning of trade talks that could move us all finally into a new, positive direction.

Luckily, a number of trade negotiators and members of the press were able to visit the Fair Trade Fair and to see just what good trade looks like and to talk with real people to find out what a positive contribution good trade rules can make to the day-to-day well being of poor producers in developing countries. Most fair trade coffee producers, for example, receive two to three-times the currently disastrous global market price, making it possible for them to send their sons and daughters to school and to begin securing water, sewer, electricity, and the other basics of life.

The Fair Trade Fair could provide the inspiration and ideas for a way out of the current deadlock. The basic principles are simple – make sure that producers are paid a fair price and that workers are paid fair wages. In addition, certified fair trade rules require direct connections between the buyers and producers and continuous environmental improvement. This goal is to prevent both exploitation of the producers and dumping on the world market.

If the goal of the WTO was to ensure fair prices to farmers and to prevent export dumping we could find an equitable solution that would be supported by farmers and governments both North and South. It is a matter of political will, not a lack of good ideas that is keeping us from going forward. With enough political will great ideas like Fair Trade can carry us forward towards local to global social justice and sustainable prosperity. Cancun is probably best understood as neither a success nor a failure but rather as an exciting beginning to truly worldwide trade negotiations.

* NOTE: The Fair Trade Fair was hosted by the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy (IATP)