Will a Phoenix Rise From the Ashes of Doha's Collapse?



Agriculture and Trade <ag-impact@lists.iatp.org> -- posted by

Will a Phoenix Rise From the Ashes of Doha's Collapse?

By Sophia Murphy and Carin Smaller, Institute for Agriculture and
Trade Policy

July 27, 2022

The complete collapse of talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO)
this week was surprising only in its suddenness. While the WTO's most
powerful members play the blame game in the media, the real reasons for
the negotiations' demise lie in fundamental mistakes made more than five
years ago, when WTO members agreed to the Doha Agenda in November 2001.

The WTO will regain its relevance only when its members acknowledge that
free trade is not a substitute for development policies. Free trade has
undermined the livelihoods of working people and farmers around the
world, but particularly in poor countries. What the Doha negotiations
and their collapse have exposed are the long-standing divisions in how
countries view trade as a tool for development and economic growth.

These divisions were clear as far back as the conclusion of the historic
Uruguay Round in 1994, which created the WTO. Those agreements committed
poor countries to make significant changes in their domestic laws to
comply with trade rules they did not properly understand at the time.
The rules proved complicated and expensive to implement. Promised
financial support from rich countries did not materialize or focused
exclusively on compliance rather than helping poor countries use the
rules for their own priorities.

In Seattle in 1999, WTO members met to agree on an agenda for a new
series of trade agreements. Rich and poor countries once again found
they had very different ideas of what was needed. Poor countries wanted
stronger mechanisms to address development concerns, including access to
affordable food, stable markets for the commodities they export and
guarantees that existing trade preferences would not be eroded without
adequate compensation. Many countries also wanted fundamental changes to
some of the existing rules, for instance on intellectual property rights
protection, to ensure access to affordable medicines.

Rich countries led by the U.S., meanwhile, were still pushing trade
deregulation as the engine of development. Pharmaceutical companies,
service industries, and transnational agribusiness all pressed rich
country governments to pursue an agenda of deeper tariff cuts,
especially for the largest of the emerging developing economies.

Seattle ended in failure when poor countries refused to go along with
the rich countries' agenda. Two years later in Doha, in the wake of
September 11, rich countries were more circumspect, careful to talk more
about development and less about their ambitions to further deregulate
global competition and investment. The result was the "Doha Development
Agenda," full of fine-sounding promises for poor countries. But almost
immediately the Doha Agenda lost that visionary gloss. It quickly became
clear that the big players at the WTO, still the U.S. and the EU, had
not really heard the demands of poor countries.

In the last year, research by the World Bank, the UN, and a variety of
independent think tanks consistently confirmed a vast literature of
documented empirical experience: most of the projected benefits of trade
deregulation pass the poorest countries by altogether, and in rich and
poor countries alike, these trade reforms create winners and losers.

The WTO has failed largely because it is simply not equipped to address
some of the most fundamental issues that all countries struggle with,
including the need to generate sufficient, stable, well-paying jobs; to
ensure access for all to an adequate and affordable diet; and to
diversify sources of foreign exchange to avoid shocks to government

The collapse of talks is an opportunity to set a new course. It is a
chance for rich countries to rebuild trust with poorer countries. It is
a chance for the WTO to rethink its role in the multilateral system.
Governments need to make the WTO work cooperatively with UN
institutions, looking to integrate trade into long-standing obligations
to respect and promote human rights, to protect and rehabilitate our
polluted planet and natural resources, and to end the scourge of

To have a future, governments need to refocus the WTO on its founding
objectives, particularly full employment and sustainable development.
Trade cannot operate in a vacuum. The world urgently needs multilateral
institutions that are capable of complicated decisions, that involve
other institutions in their work and that are cognizant of other
obligations, from human rights to environmental protection. It's up to
WTO members to decide whether the WTO will be one of those institutions.

Sophia Murphy is a Senior Advisor on Trade for the Institute for
Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Carin Smaller is the Director of
IATP's Trade Information Project in Geneva, Switzerland

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