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Doha: Campaign to make voters know its benefits

May 26, 2008 14:16 IST

Last week, the heads of the negotiating groups on agriculture and non-agriculture market access at the World Trade Organisation released the revised negotiating documents to break the impasse and take the Doha Development Round forward. The revised texts provide a platform for intensified work in the coming weeks.

As expected, some WTO members have expressed immediate reservations and it looks far from certain as to whether the WTO can end up achieving anything. In fact, the very relevance of the DDR and even the WTO are now being questioned by independent observers.

WTO Director General Pascal Lamy was hopeful the negotiating texts clearly indicate where convergence lies among the WTO members and that the documents provide a springboard for a new and critical stage. But, the basic principles will continue to apply -- only full membership can establish modalities, transparency and inclusiveness are fundamental and informal consultations in various smaller configurations are essential to narrow differences but they must feed into multilateral arena in a continuous loop.

One reality that cannot be ignored is voters in many countries do not understand how the Doha Round and the WTO Rules will benefit them. Politicians do not care enough to sell the positives, and feed the negative perceptions.

In India, successive commerce ministers -- Murasoli Maran, Arun Jaitley or Kamal Nath -- get more credit for stalling negotiations. Nobody is aware if they made any positive contribution. Across the WTO membership, few trade ministers are sure if they can sell even a good trade deal to their constituencies.

When the US Congress gave its President a 'fast track authority' to conclude trade deals, it was considered a major boost to trade negotiations. Till last year, the conclusion of DDR before expiry of the 'fast track authority' was considered very necessary.

Now, it is being appreciated that with elections round the corner, Kamal Nath will not allow a conclusion to the Doha Round. It is not only the next administration in the US but the next government  in India that will take the call on whether the DDR should conclude at all.

The DDR was launched with the threat of US President Bush 'either you are with us or against us' booming in everyone's ears. After the Iraq war, US clout has diminished significantly. In the last seven years, the share of poorer countries in world trade has gone up significantly.

Their coalition is able to resist pressures. The Marrakesh declaration established the WTO in 1994, when the poorer countries had little say. That is no more the case.

World trade growth slid to 5.5 per cent last year from 8.5 per cent in 2006 and may grow even more slowly -- at about 4.5 per cent -- as sharp economic deceleration in key developed countries is only partly offset by continuing strong growth in emerging economies. Even so, a trade deal appears unlikely as few people understand the benefits of DDR conclusion.

In the circumstances, the imperatives for Lamy are clear. He should persuade the WTO members to campaign hard to make the voters appreciate how the DDR will benefit them. It is not enough to stay focused on the technicalities in the negotiations.

T N C Rajagopalan