A New Beginning for WTO After Cancun
Mark Ritchie and Kristin
Dawkins | October 10, 2003
John Gershman, Interhemispheric Resource Center ( IRC )
Americas Program, Interhemispheric
Resource Center (IRC)
Forget the spin you have been reading about the "failure" of the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun. 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 to trade talks that actually bring about fair trade, and
the benefits to both the developing and the developed world that have long
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.
The most remarkable success in Cancun was the WTO meeting itself. What
happened was simply that most of the countries refused to go along with the
demands made by the cabal that has been running things up until now. It was
the first time that the World Trade Organization began to feel like a truly
global organization–not just an extension of the U.S. government’s foreign
and domestic economic policy. In previous Ministerial meetings, there have
been 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.
This was largely due to the fact that countries now have real experience
with which to evaluate the promises of so-called "free trade" that
really should be called trade deregulation. Ten years ago, the poorer countries
were told that, according to computer projections, the act of signing away
their right to regulate imports and exports would miraculously turn into rapid
economic growth and transform their societies into something along the lines
of the United States–or at least like Singapore or Korea. But in reality,
most countries’ economies and human development have gone backwards since
the WTO took effect in 1995. And the worst of the unfair trade practices–namely,
the dumping of agricultural products by U.S.-based grain companies at prices
below the cost of production–has significantly increased, driving producers
in both the South and the North out of production and increasing the need
for expensive food imports as well as the incidence of hunger.
A second outstanding feature of the Cancun meeting was the working partnership
between many governments, especially from the developing world, with nongovernmental
and civil society groups that provided much-needed technical analysis and
just plain old political support. At both the Ministerial level and in the
day-to-day negotiations at WTO headquarters in Geneva, developing country
governments with smaller staff face a severe disadvantage straining to keep
up with the blizzard of proposals and frenzy of meetings. In fact, this makes
up a critical element of U.S. government strategy–to keep other countries
off balance and on the defensive in these talks. In the lead-up to Cancun,
many of the officials from these countries acknowledged the useful informational
role played by NGOs and civil society to counter this challenge.
Third, 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, and 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 end 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.
For those paying attention, the Fair Trade Fair of Cancun could provide
the inspiration and ideas for a way out of the current WTO 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. Discussions at the Fair Trade Fair highlighted
not only the alternative marketing of products based on fair producer prices
but also what alternative rules for corporate commercial trade are needed
to achieve on a global scale 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.
There is a reason agriculture dominated the debate in Cancun. The vast
majority of the poor people on Earth rely upon agriculture for their very
survival. If the goal of the WTO were 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. The enforcement
of existing prohibitions on dumping and the right to regulate and manage supplies
would go a very long ways in stabilizing rural communities and national economies
throughout the world. With food security and a sound agricultural sector at
the base, diversification based on the processing of other natural resources
and a growing manufacturing sector follows, generating the reliable tax base
upon which a healthy services sector depends.
It is a matter of political will, not a lack of good ideas that led to
the Cancun collapse. With enough political will, great ideas like fairly traded
goods and fair trade rules can carry us forward toward long-term prosperity.
Cancun is probably best understood as an open door for genuinely worldwide
trade negotiations. A real balance in political power at the WTO could usher
in an era of more sustainable systems of local and regional production and
consumption as well as greater democracy and social justice globally.
(Mark Ritchie is President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade
Policy (online at www.iatp.org ).
Kristin Dawkins is IATP’s Vice President for International Programs and a
member of the Advisory Committee for Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org ).)
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Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at www.irc-online.org ).
©2003. All rights reserved.
Mark Ritchie & Kristin Dawkins, A New Beginning for WTO After
Cancun, Americas Program (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource
Center, October 10, 2003).
Writer: Mark Ritchie & Kristin Dawkins
Editor: John Gershman, IRC
Layout: Tonya Cannariato,