A three-day international civil society forum-2005 began in Dhaka on 3-10-05 for advancing LDC interests in the sixth ministerial meeting of the WTO to be held in Hong Kong next December. Bangladesh commerce minister inaugurated the conference by saying that much remained to be done to reverse the continued marginalisation of the least developed countries (LDCs).
In his message, the Director General of WTO said that he would pay special attention to LDCs. He also said that the negotiating process must be all-inclusive and transparent. He considered it his duty to rebalance the WTO system by facilitating and promoting the interests of small delegations. He would ensure an early circulation of the draft ministerial declaration to allow enough time for small delegations to comment. Circulation of the draft declaration in time is very important in the sense that generally little time is given to the delegations to formulate views on the draft declaration.
Secretary-General of UNCTAD in his message said that civil society had an important responsibility in its advocacy role for reversing the marginalisation of LDCs. According to him, LDCs needed to look beyond trade negotiations and improve their productive capacity.
The civil society forum met in Dhaka to voice the demands of the international civil society and also provide strategic policy inputs to the governments of the LDCs in the context of ongoing WTO negotiations. Their aim is to complement and enhance the efforts of LDC governments. They wanted to contribute towards making the multilateral trading system balanced, equitable and responsive to LDC interests. They expressed deep concern at the lack of progress in fulfilling the commitments of the developed countries.
Although the meeting was convened in the name of the LDCs, the concerns of the developing countries were cleverly incorporated in the declaration. There is nothing wrong in projecting the demands of the two groups of countries but this should be done in a transparent manner. Mixing up the issues of different groups dilutes the focus of the meeting. Participants from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Malaysia and Pakistan came to the Dhaka meeting to advance their interests and not to sponsor the LDC platform only. The preamble of the declaration reflects the concerns of both developing countries and LDCs.
Because of supply-side constraints, LDCs could neither address the challenges nor access the opportunities emanating from the global trading system. Although the decision of the G-8 countries to cancel the debt of a number of LDCs was appreciated, the civil society was disappointed to note that many other LDCs have been kept out of the scope of this initiative. The recent initiatives by some developing countries to extend zero-tariff market access to the LDCs was welcomed and other advanced developing countries were urged to do the same. The forum mentioned that adequate support was needed for effective participation of the LDCs in dispute settlement body.
The forum has given lots of advice to LDCs to practice democratic pluralism, good governance, social justice, equitable distribution, labour rights and fighting corruption. These are the prescriptions of the donors. The forum had to reiterate these suggestions because their project has been funded by the donors. The donors are pushing their ideas through the civil society forum. The money given to the organiser of civil society is drawn from technical assistance programme of Bangladesh. The civil society has not only articulated the concerns of LDCs but also piloted the case of the donors. This is a mutually convenient arrangement.
The declaration of the civil society contains the recommendations under the headings of agriculture, non-agricultural market access, services, WTO rules, trade facilitation, special and differential treatment, TRIPS, trade, development and aid and so on. Some of these recommendations are highlighted here.
The forum called for duty and quota-free market access of agricultural products of LDCs to developed country markets and also to markets of those developing countries who are in a position to provide such concession. It recommended elimination of all forms of export subsidies by2010. Developed countries were asked to phase out cotton subsidies which are detrimental to the livelihood of cotton producers in many LDCs. LDCs must not be constrained by non-tariff barriers. Assistance was needed for capacity building in the area of agriculture.
In the area of non-agricultural market access, the forum reiterated the LDC demand for duty-free access of all industrial goods to developed country markets and the markets of advanced developing countries. It called upon WTO members to fix up simplified and LDC-friendly rules of origin and demanded elimination of non-tariff barriers. Resource allocation was needed to strengthen supply-side capacities.
In the area of services, LDC interests are properly reflected. Natural persons must get national treatment in the host country. Restriction on entry by natural persons on the basis of need test and national security must be removed. Specific decision is urgently needed on emergency safeguard. An automatic mechanism of credit should be instituted for autonomous liberalisation. Increased support was necessary for assessing the impacts of GATS on the services sectors of LDCs.
In view of narrow export base, low export capacity and lack of export diversification, LDCs need support regarding application of anti-dumping duties, subsidies and countervailing measures. WTO members have to put in place appropriate mechanism for meaningful participation of LDCs in the dispute settlement process.
LDCs need support to identify their trade facilitation needs and priorities. LDCs will undertake commitments to the extent consistent with their development, financial and trade needs or their administrative and institutional capabilities. Necessary support is needed for the LDCs for harmonising and standardising their documentation procedures. Support is also needed for acceding to the harmonised system convention.
Special and differential treatment (S & D) provisions must be made more precise, effective and operational. These measures should be mandatory and legally binding. There should be a regular arrangement for reviewing and monitoring the implementation of S&D provisions. Donors have always avoided interpretation of these provisions.
A permanent solution is needed so that LDCs having no or inadequate capacity for manufacturing drugs have access to affordable medicines. Protection should be given to products that are economically important for LDCs. Technology has to be transferred to LDCs. Appropriate initiatives are needed to safeguard LDC interest in protection of plant variety.
There is an increasing realisation that without adequate support in the form of aid, technical assistance and debt relief, LDCs will not be able to cope with the emerging challenges of globalisation. The forum has demanded increased resources and an effective delivery mechanism for trade capacity building so that the LDCs can take advantage of the market access opportunities. Developed countries have to take time-bound measures to realise the millennium development goals. They have to provide 0.15 per cent of their GDP as development assistance to LDCs as promised. LDCs have been asking for this for more than three decades.
The declaration of the civil society forum is a catalogue of demands of the LDCs. LDCs have to keep on pressing their viewpoints for acceptance by the rich countries. But they also need a strategy to negotiate. All their demands are not going to be met in one meeting. LDCs may negotiate among themselves first to reach agreement on few issues such as cotton issue, duty free access of their products and movement of natural persons for negotiation with the donors. This is vitally important. Thereafter, they may argue with the other members of WTO that without visible progress on these issues they cannot be a part of the consensus.
WTO decisions are taken by consensus. There cannot be any outcome of the meeting without the support of the LDCs as a group. LDCs can bargain if they are united. The rich countries resort to different tactics to divide the LDCs and dilute the focus. This has happened on many occasions. This scribe was a witness to such incidents. It is learnt that unity of LDCs could not be maintained at Cancun. LDC unity breaks down in the final days of negotiation. Advancing the cause of LDCs is a tough job to accomplish.
The writer is a former economic minister of Bangladesh mission to UN in Geneva