NAIROBI — The World Trade Organisation’s conference in Nairobi last week scored a series of small victories on matters such as fishing subsidies and import tariffs on mobile phones, even as questions on the relevance of the 14-year-old talks on trade development remain.
Trade leaders announced the expansion of the Information Technology Agreement, which will cut tariffs on $1,3 trillion worth of IT products, and agreed to explore ending subsidies that lead to over-fishing in parts of the world. They also worked on a draft deal to end direct support payments for farmers.
However, by late Thursday evening, the second-last day of the four-day conference, discussion on the future of the so-called Doha Round had only been in small groups including the conference chairwoman, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, and WTO director general Roberto Azevedo, and not by the larger group of delegates, according to WTO spokesman, Keith Rockwell.
“There are some small victories, but the elephant in the room remains,” Cyril Prinsloo, a researcher in the economic diplomacy department at the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs, said in an interview in Nairobi.
The Doha Talks, named after the Qatari capital in which they begun in 2001, are aimed at adding billions of dollars to global trade by stimulating cross-border commerce.
Negotiations have been stuck since 2009 because of differences between wealthy and poor nations, chiefly over subsidised farming in the developed world.
While a draft agreement on agriculture released on Thursday suggested a deal on phasing out subsidies may be struck, country statements showed a huge divide. Developed states want to move on from the Doha talks, while developing nations intend to continue with what they call unfinished business.
African nations say they can’t continue sustaining missions in Geneva to participate in never-concluding accords.
“Unless they address this key stalemate, how are they going to go forward?” Prinsloo said.
Negotiators will also leave Nairobi without the required two-thirds majority of members needed to ratify the compromise Trade Facilitation Agreement mooted at the body’s ministerial gathering two years ago.
The deal crafted with the hope of improving customs procedures for goods from least-developed countries could increase merchandise exports by as much as $1 trillion a year, according to the WTO.
While six countries assented to the accord this week, bringing the total to 63 out of the required 108, some African economies, including South Africa and Ghana, have yet to ratify it.
“Not enough countries have come here with ratifications in place,” South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said in an interview. “Some are in the pipeline somewhere, which includes us.”
Agricultural subsidies in the rich world have remained the key stumbling block. African cotton producers are threatening to start a case under WTO’s dispute-settlement mechanism as early as January, in the event rich nations refuse to significantly reduce or eliminate trade-distorting support to their farmers.
Despite slow progress, the 20-year-old body continues to expand its membership. Delegates in Nairobi accepted Liberia and Afghanistan into the group, which will bring membership to 164.
And while the talks have failed to make headway on big deals over the last decade, nations have struck separate agreements that aren’t fully governed by the trade body. The US and some of its trading partners have proposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 12 Pacific Rim nations and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.
“The WTO is not proving itself to be a real innovation hub for large-scale agreements, but it is moving to have some relevance for things like the TFA,” Aubrey Hruby, a senior fellow at Washington-based Atlantic Council, said by phone. “Countries have to prepare themselves for a world in which the WTO is more and more sidelined, not irrelevant, but sidelined.” — Bloomberg