An opportunity missed at Nairobi

December 24, 2015 12:17 am | Updated November 17, 2021 03:09 am IST

The Nairobi Ministerial Conference of the > World Trade Organisation concluded last week after negotiations stretched into an unscheduled fifth day as delegates from the rich nations, emerging market economies and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) sought to hammer out an agreement acceptable to all. The final declaration, while helping salvage the primacy of the WTO as the arbiter of international trade rules, left the LDCs and the emerging nations, especially India, trying to count their gains as the U.S. and EU celebrated the outcome that quietly cast aside the > Doha Development Agenda . That member-countries may be prepared to make sacrifices was apparent from the outset after Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his opening remarks, cited 2015 as a year in which nations demonstrated ‘unparalleled’ cooperation in agreeing on collective approaches to the pressing problems facing humanity. His references to the ‘successful’ International Conference on Financing for Development, the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the ‘historic’ Paris agreement to combat climate change, heightened delegates’ anxiety to conclude a deal. The fact that the WTO body was meeting for the first time in Africa also meant that both developed countries and emerging market economies like India were wary of being seen as deal-breakers. And the surge in bilateral, regional and plurilateral trade agreements, including the most recent Trans-Pacific Partnership, cast its shadow too. The result is a modest one, with the key takeaways being the decisions to end all farm export subsidies and liberalise global trade in information technology products.

From > India’s point of view, the Nairobi declaration was disappointing on multiple fronts. From its relative pre-eminence among emerging market economies with the principled position on sticking to the > Doha agenda, India has returned with very few, if any, of its demands met. There is no concrete agreement on a special safeguards mechanism to protect farmers in the developing countries against sudden import surges, and no short deadline for a permanent solution on public stockholding for food security purposes. And the lack of an unambiguous reaffirmation of the Doha Development Agenda means new issues of interest to developed countries, including competition policy, government procurement and investment are now open for negotiations. The lessons are clear. While negotiators from the developed countries came fully prepared to defend their strategic aims, India’s leadership faltered for want of a clear-cut strategy. For the future, the government needs to broaden its preparation: by holding wide-ranging meetings on WTO-related issues with all stakeholders in a bipartisan manner, renewing and strengthening its ties with the developing and LDC economies to protect the development agenda, and finally bolstering its pool of trade negotiators by picking the best and brightest trade experts and lawyers.

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