Africans Express Concerns ahead of WTO 11th Ministerial Conference In Buenos Aires

Africa Ambassadors and Experts in Geneva have outlined clear and unequivocal positions on issues ahead of the 11th World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial conference scheduled for 10-13th December 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, writes * Sylvester Bagooro.

The issues include those mandated under the Doha Work Programme (i.e. Agriculture, Cotton, Special and Differential Treatment, Fisheries Subsidies and Services) as well as those without mandate (i.e. e-commerce, Investment Facilitation and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMES). These are contained in a position paper on the State of play on the WTO Negotiations by Africa Geneva Group of Ambassadors and Experts as preparation towards the WTO 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.

Of prime importance to Africa is the issue of Agriculture (domestic support, public stock holding). Domestic support by developed countries has wreaked havoc on poor farmers and producers across the continent and the globe as a whole. It has been one of the thorny and long-winding issues in the WTO since the Doha Ministerial in 2001 which ‘promised’ to deal with these harmful domestic subsidies by developed countries.  In fact, as the position paper puts it, ‘the launch of the Doha Work Programme was intended to redress the systemic imbalances inherited from WTO Agreements in the Uruguay Round, in the Agreement on Agriculture where harmful subsidies are permitted’.  The African Group has a longstanding position of calling for the redress of these systemic imbalances and asymmetries in the Agreement on Agriculture.

The promised reforms such as disciplining the harmful subsidies within the domestic support pillar in the agricultural trade are yet to be seen. At the last Ministerial in Nairobi, two years ago, attempts were made not only to bury these longstanding demands to discipline these harmful subsidies, but also kill off the Doha Work Programme and move to the so-called 21st Century issues. Hence, ahead of MC11, the Africa Group is, again, calling for reforms in the Agricultural trade. ‘Agriculture is a vital sector for most African countries in terms of economic growth, employment, food and livelihood security and sustainability. Hence, Agriculture is Africa’s number one priority in the WTO, and agricultural reform efforts multilaterally will support the fulfilment of the African Union (AU’s) Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme’. The group stated. Meanwhile, most developed countries such as the US and the European Union (EU) remain opposed to the Doha Work Agenda as they falsely claim that the Doha negotiations no longer exist.

Related to the above is the issue of the Public Stocking Holding (PSH). Public stockholding programmes are used by developing countries to purchase food at administered prices for food security purposes. But this has been objected to by developed countries. So, countries have been pushing for a permanent solution to guarantee them the space to buy food from poor farmers and producers. A stop-gap compromise in the form of a peace clause that insulated countries from being hauled before the WTO Dispute Settlement Committee for programmes that were in place before the ninth Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia, was reached at that Ministerial. At the last Ministerial conference in Nairobi in 2015, there was no agreement on a permanent solution to the Public Stock Holding and hence the Africa Group, with other developing countries such as India, is calling for a permanent solution on PSH during MC11.

Another issue that has lingered on is Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT).  African Ambassadors and Experts have argued that it is necessary for Africa’s much needed structural economic transformation since it, to some extent, recognise the asymmetric levels of development of member states. However, concerns have been raised about the stiff opposition from developed countries on this meanwhile these countries developed through the use of ‘protective walls’ hence the Group states that “Many countries, including the developed and many advanced developing countries developed a large manufacturing base behind protective walls, in Europe and Asia. That the State ought to be able to intervene in strategic sectors of the economy, without which it will be difficult to industrialize” the Africa Group reiterated.

On the issues without mandate, these are mostly championed by developed countries. These are–e-commerce, Investment Facilitation and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMES) going into the Ministerial. These issues aim to capture regulatory control on these issues in developing countries through binding rules. On all these issues the Africa Group’s position remains an unambiguous ‘no’ to all of them.

First on the issue of e-commerce, African Ambassadors and Experts have stated that although e-commerce can be used for development and has many benefits, the kind of rules being proposed at the WTO are not necessarily going to contribute towards development. Cross-border e-commerce is highly unbalanced in nature and monopolized by companies and countries. Most of these technological giants are US-based hence ahead of this Ministerial, the Africa Group says before Africa will be in a position to contemplate multilateral rule-making in e-commerce, there are some fundamental questions that have arisen in the internal discussions. These include and are not limited to: What constitutes the development dimension of e-commerce? E-commerce is evolving and developing without multilateral rules. Why is there a need to have rules? And which rules will promote development? How will digital trade rules constrain or support Africa’s ability to industrialize, structurally transform and continentally integrate? How will the proposed multilateral rules help Africa develop its own digital capabilities or shape digital flows in order to influence trade and play catch-up?

Electronic trading is not the problem. What many are opposed to is the so-called multilateral rules being pushed by big corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Micro-soft among others to enable entrench their monopoly and dominance in the market.  That is, they are seeking multilateral rules that would ensure free data flows, no localisation rules, and no disclosure of source code under the guise of “e-commerce.”

Again, the Africa Group has rejected any negotiations on domestic regulation in services and has stated that the proposed rules will hinder the regulatory capacity for development purposes, and facilitate ‘regulatory capture’ by allowing all foreign service providers and WTO Members to intervene in the process of regulation-making in Africa’s domestic processes and economies and limit the space for development-driven regulation, thereby undermining Africa’s development. Specifically, Africa Group states that ‘The current new proposed rules suggest that before African countries adopt any laws and regulations, the countries must first publish them in advance, with sufficient detail, to allow members and also non-state actors to determine whether and how their interests will be affected. In so doing countries must explain themselves, on the purpose and rationale for such law and/or regulation. In the event that those interests are affected, countries must allow them to comment and also consider their comments’.

The same trend and threat is with the proposals on the so-called MSMES-agenda to control behind the border measures- and this too African Ambassadors have kicked against as they see it as attempts under the guise of advancing the issues of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). The Group stated that following the Nairobi Ministerial Conference (MC10), a number of members advanced proposals for MSMES/SMEs as a disguised means to advance specific issues in their interest. Those can be grouped in two main categories, namely some Members pushing rules relating to (i) e-commerce and cross-border trade; (ii) scrutinizing the domestic regulatory process in the name of MSMES for a potential “regulatory capture” by external companies at the expense of national sovereignty.

Fully aware of the implications of these on the continent’s development agenda, ahead of the 11thMinisterial, Africa is saying that while all African countries are engaged in the development of MSMES which contribute to GDP growth, multilateral rules that are currently proposed to address obstacles facing MSMES in international trade are not yet clear. More importantly, it is not clear how such rules would address African MSMES in the current global competitive environment given their basic constraints rooted in the structural impediments of Africa’s economies such as productive capacities and capabilities; lack of technology; and access to finance among others.

Finally, investment facilitation has been championed by a number of developed countries. On this Experts and Ambassadors have argued that it is another attempt to invade Africa’s development space under the cloak of investment facilitation. The ambassadors, ahead of the Ministerial, have stated that many countries have developed national frameworks based on principles and guidelines developed in other international organizations. The rationale and value of discussing investment facilitation at the WTO is not clear since it will duplicate work that has already been done by other international organizations and implemented in many national jurisdictions. Hence, Africa has stated that ‘current proposals tabled seem to focus on capturing administrative processes, regulatory actions and transparency in the formulation of investment-related policies. That is countries would undertake stringent obligations to publish measures and policies promptly, notify new or existing laws, regulations or administrative guidelines, respond to specific information requests within given timelines’.

With all these issues outlined as part of preparation towards the ministerial, Africa seems set and looks forward to a showdown in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires from the 10-13th of December 2017.

*Sylvester Bagooro is Programme Officer, Political Economy,Third World Network-Africa.
SOURCE: Sylvester Bagooro || Third World Network-Africa


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