Yash Tandon approached the guard warily and asked permission to pass. Briefly consulting a list of names close to his chest, the security guard shook his head. Permission denied. Just then two other men approached and were waved quickly through. They cast cursory – almost derisory – backward glances at Tandon, who stood aside as they strode by.
A scene outside the VIP lounge of a posh nightclub? No – welcome to the ‘green room’ of the World Trade Organisation. Professor Tandon, director of an Africa-based academic institute, was an official Ugandan delegate to the fourth WTO ministerial conference in Doha, Qatar. And, as he was discovering, the WTO operates one rule for the rich and another for the poor.
On paper, the WTO is fully open and democratic. Its former director general Mike Moore once said: ‘[It’s] the most democratic international body in existence today. The WTO is not imposed on countries… No country is forced to sign our agreements. Each and every one of the WTO’s rules is negotiated by member governments and agreed by consensus.’
But speaking more frankly on an earlier occasion, Moore made a stark admission. ‘There is no denying,’ he said, ‘that some members are more equal than others when it comes to influence.’ Moore had probably never spoken truer words. According to NGOs and many delegates from Southern countries, ‘democracy’ at the WTO has never been anything more than a shallow facade.
One of the most heavily-criticised aspects of the WTO process is the ‘green room’ system, where powerful members meet informally in closed groups to work out areas of agreement. Attendance, as professor Tandon and others found out, is by invitation only.
Speaking of one ‘green room’ meeting at Doha, Zimbabwean ambassador to the WTO Boniface Chidyausiku said: ‘[It was] operating like a mafia. [My minister] could not speak since he was not officially invited to the consultations. He could only give notes to his colleagues to intervene.’ Several other African delegates simply gave up and went back to their hotels. ‘You are representing a country and it is humiliating and ridiculous for you to hang around in the corridor,’ said one.
The result of this approach is that by the time the whole conference convened to make its democratic ‘consensus decision’ everything had already been stitched up behind closed doors. The plenary meetings were little more than sideshows, where government ministers could make speeches and feel involved before rubber-stamping what had already been agreed elsewhere. Any country holding up progress was seen as a ‘wrecker’ and often simply ignored by the chair.
Green room meetings are not the only ones where attendance is by invitation only. Entire conferences (known as ‘mini-ministerials’) have been held in which government ministers from a chosen few countries hammer out issues of agreement in advance. When one mini-ministerial was convened in Mexico, developing country delegates seeking invitations from the WTO secretariat were told that the Mexican government was the responsible party. The Mexican government denied having anything to do with the meeting apart from providing facilities. The Southern delegates were left bemused and, yet again, excluded.
Arm-twisting and bullying
Most delegates and government ministers from developing countries are well aware that WTO decisions on opening up trade to multinational corporations are not in their interests. Indeed, almost all low-income African and Asian countries arrived at the Doha conference aligned to negotiating blocs that were determined to stand their ground. Why then did they eventually buckle and sign up to a new trade round? The answer lies partly in the underhand tactics employed by the US and the European Union to forcibly extract the outcomes they wanted.
As Adriano Campolina Soares, head of ActionAid’s international food and trade campaign and an observer in Doha, recalls, developing countries strenuously opposed the first draft of the ministerial declaration presented to the conference. ‘When the second draft came back, all their concerns had been ignored. In fact, the text was even worse – but now they accepted it. This shows how the WTO works; pressure had been put on these countries behind closed doors.’
This ‘pressure’ can take many forms. Powerful countries may threaten to cut aid budgets, or they might offer new cash as bribes. Pakistan, for instance, got its $1 billion post-September 11 aid package from the US one day after the Doha conference had concluded. Tanzania, another compliant country, got a massive new World Bank/IMF debt-servicing deal a week after Doha. The threatened cancellation of preferential trade agreements – often crucial to developing country economies – was another favourite US/EU tactic. And once the Southern negotiating blocs were split, individual countries could be picked off one by one.
The Doha conference was held just two months after September 11, and the war on terrorism was a crucial bargaining chip. With the US trade representative Robert Zoellick insisting that a new trade round would help to stamp out terrorism, no countries wanted to be seen as opposing him. The British trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt took up the theme, saying the Doha agreement ‘signals the determination of the world community to fight terror with trade, as well as arms’.
Another favourite tactic was direct lobbying by rich country representatives against ‘difficult’ Southern negotiators. Thanks to pressure from the US on his government back home, one ambassador in Doha was sacked before he had even unpacked his luggage. Many others found themselves on a US blacklist and soon lost their jobs.
As Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa point out in their forthcoming book Behind the Scenes at the WTO, the end result is ‘to shift the decision-making process away from the formal process, in which all countries are at least notionally equal, into the realm of bilateral horse-trading. Here, only the rich have any real leverage, while most developing countries are so desperate for trade opportunities, aid, debt reduction, etc, that they have little choice but to succumb’.
More basic financial concerns also weigh heavily on developing countries. The WTO holds over 1,000 meetings a year, many of them running simultaneously, and only nations which can afford to support large missions can represent themselves properly. At ministerial conferences the discrepancies can be even more extreme: the World Development Movement discovered that while the EU had 502 people on its delegations to the WTO meeting in Doha, the Maldives had two, and Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, had no delegates at all.
One African delegate noted: ‘They got the deals they wanted because of sheer fatigue on our part. They have big delegations and can stagger people. We don’t. It is very difficult to go on negotiating day and night for several days without sleep.’
Many developing country negotiators also had linguistic problems that made it difficult to keep up with what was going on: green room negotiations were almost exclusively completed in English; even official documents would only be translated into French and Spanish – often much later than the English texts became available. Exhausted Southern delegates found themselves negotiating in the dark.
The powerful countries took great pains at the Doha ministerial meeting to limit discussion and set the agenda in advance. The draft declaration was presented at the ceremonial opening session where formal objections from developing countries were impossible to raise. The very next day the chair of the meeting, Qatari trade minister Youssef Hussain Kamal, caused derisive laughter when he mistakenly left his microphone switched on while discussing with Mike Moore how to stop the Indian delegation – one of the staunchest opponents of a new trade round – taking the floor.
At the end of the fifth day at Doha there was still no agreement, and many developing country delegates and ministers – booked on cheaper scheduled flights – began to leave. In their absence a decision was taken to extend the conference (without any discussion among the membership – a serious procedural omission), and the draft declaration was forced through a day after the meeting was originally supposed to have ended.
As Adriano Campolina Soares says: ‘If the WTO keeps the same framework of decision-making, developing countries will never be able to defend their interests. The current framework just emphasises the arm-twisting environment. Despite the title ‘development agenda’, almost all the concerns of developing countries were systematically ignored by the WTO.’
John Hilary, trade policy adviser for Save the Children and another observer at Doha, has reached a similar conclusion. ‘Bullying and blackmail have become an integral part of how the WTO works, as we saw all too clearly at the Doha ministerial,’ he says. ‘Time and again developing countries have been forced to abandon their negotiating positions as a result of economic, political and even personal threats to their delegates. The pretence that the WTO is an equal and democratic negotiating forum lost its credibility a long time ago.’
According to Hilary, things are likely to be just as bad at the upcoming WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico. The powerful countries have already begun to hint at the pressure they will be putting on the South to sign up to yet more one-sided trade liberalisation. The EU has even stated openly that the WTO is not about philanthropy. Clearly, the desire of the EU and US to extract still further concessions from the world’s poor continues unabated.
Mark Lynas is a freelance writer. His book on the human impacts of climate change will be published by Flamingo later this year
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2003