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Africa should be prioritised at WTO Ministerial 0

African countries are ready to conclude the Doha Round on the basis of current proposals, but warn against any attempt to renegotiate them at the seventh ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that opens in Geneva today. Meanwhile, the Africa Trade Network demands a moratorium on the Doha talks.

This ministerial conference is not meant to be a negotiating forum as governments are too far apart and want to avoid another collapse in talks, as has happened several times since the last ministerial meeting in Hong Kong four years ago.

While it won’t be a negotiating forum, African governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) still take the ministerial meeting seriously. In preparation for the event, ministers met in Cairo while the Africa Trade Network, representing 25 NGOs from 15 countries, met in Cape Town. The two meetings were not directly related, but both have issued statements that partially overlap.

However, their conclusions are very different.

“We want to conclude the Doha Round on the basis of the proposals of the December texts in agriculture and NAMA,” Hicham Badr, the ambassador of Egypt and coordinator of the African Group, told IPS in an interview.

NAMA refers to non-agricultural market access, mainly for industrial goods but also for fish, forestry products and raw materials.

What are the outstanding issues? Last year, at the mini-ministerial meeting in July in Geneva, cotton was not even discussed, replied Badr. “Africa’s priorities should be considered at the same time as the others countries’ and not as secondary issues after everything else has been resolved.

“We also want special and differential treatment, development, special products, duty-free and quota-free market access for least developed countries and special preferences. There should be no double standards in priorities,” he insisted.

Special products and special and differential treatment are allowances granted to developing countries to create policy space to protect certain vulnerable products and sectors of their economies.

But for some NGOs, this is not enough. “We want the redress of the global trade inequities and a moratorium on the Doha negotiations,” Christabel Phiri from Third World Network Africa, which coordinates the Africa Trade Network (ATN), told IPS in an interview.

More specifically, ATN demands that special products and the special safeguard mechanism (SSM) be revamped and rehabilitated. SSM will allow developing countries to trigger higher tariffs if import volumes rise or prices fall beyond a certain level.

“SSM is one of the big issues,” conceded Badr. “It is meant to make sure that once tariffs are reduced, the interests of developing countries are preserved. The negotiations are not yet finished but, at the end of the day, whatever mechanism is adopted Africa wants it to be protective. Not like the old general safeguards which were not satisfactory.”

Regarding NAMA, ATN wants the tariff cuts proposed to developing countries – in Africa and beyond – to be rejected. “African countries must affirm their right, as per the WTO body of rules and past practice, to set targets for tariff reduction commensurate with their stage of development,” exclaimed Phiri.

Governments are mainly concerned about the “sectoral initiatives” that foresee deeper or even complete tariff cuts in entire industrial sectors, such as textiles and clothing, raw materials, fish, forestry, gems and jewellery.

“These initiatives must remain voluntary,” stated Badr. “There must be no backtracking or attempt to renegotiate, reinvent or reinterpret what was agreed upon at Hong Kong or at the July mini-ministerial in Geneva. We are ready to accept what is on the table now — even though it is not enough — but not to go back from that.

“In times of crisis, if there is a concession, it should be given to Africa.”

In services, ATN wants no further liberalisation. Existing offers made by developing countries as part of the Doha Round should be withdrawn and no new ones made.

These NGOs also want government procurement to be kept out of the services discussions and to allow for the strengthening of domestic regulations in order to boost financial markets. “The restrictions on domestic regulation currently proposed must be removed,” according to an ATN statement.

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By Isolda Agazzi IPS 

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