The stakes at Doha

A PROCESS THAT began more than three years ago at the World Trade Organisation and has since travelled over more than one pothole is close to completion. It is now all but certain that next month's WTO ministerial conference in Doha will witness the launch of a new round of trade liberalisation negotiations; though all the details of the negotiating agenda will not be known until the last-minute wrangling and compromises that are the hallmark of WTO talks are completed at the meeting. Even at this late stage it is worth asking three important questions. What kind of agenda will suit the largest number of countries, giving special consideration to the developing world? What agenda will best secure the future of the WTO as an institution? And finally what options does India have at this stage?

The momentum now is towards an over-arching agenda that may even dwarf the controversial Uruguay Round of 1986-93. This momentum, however, is not powered by the needs of the majority of the WTO members, but by the trade muscle of the U.S. and the E.U. with the support of Japan and Canada. If the latest proposals are approved at Doha, Governments could be signing on to negotiating as many as 14 different agreements in areas from industrial tariffs to foreign investment. Yet, the need, by any argument, is for a narrow agenda confined to trade issues which focusses on completing the unfinished business of the Uruguay Round like in agriculture and correcting its shortcomings like in intellectual property rights. Negotiations on a concise agenda can be completed quickly, they will not strain the technical, legal and financial resources of the developing countries and will contain the fissures in the WTO. In the past couple of years, the institution has been riven by deep divisions on everything from trade rules to as mundane an assignment as the selection of a new director- general. A round with an ambitious agenda that is formulated by powerful mercantile interests will, on the other hand, take even longer to negotiate than the Uruguay Round. Such an agenda, by overloading the WTO, may even threaten to tear apart the multilateral trading system. And by adding new and non- trade issues such as foreign investment and national competition policies it could deprive the WTO of the little legitimacy it now enjoys among Governments, economic agents and civil society. India, perhaps more than most other countries, has a major stake in a favourable outcome from the Doha meeting since the organisation arouses strong negative feelings in the domestic polity and economy. Although the bogey of ``India's isolation'' has been regularly raised about the Government's insistence that the WTO deal first with implementation issues, it is important to remember that in the consensus-driven organisation that the WTO is supposed to be, any country - and India is not a minor member - can block an unfavourable agenda. The Union Cabinet has approved a negotiating brief that reiterates India's position and at the same time gives negotiators some flexibility. It is now a question of the Union Commerce Minister, Mr. Murasoli Maran, being able to negotiate the best that is possible in what he recently described as an organisation that was ``a necessary evil''.

The proposals for the next round are being sold alternatively as either needed to provide a psychological boost to a sluggish world economy or as being tailored to suit development needs. A WTO round with such a huge agenda that it could take close to a decade to finalise agreements is irrelevant in late 2001 to businesses around the world that are suffering from a loss of confidence. And an agenda that pushes developing country priorities well below that of the U.S. and the E.U. is as far removed as possible from a ``Development Round''. Doha may well be the last chance for the WTO to demonstrate that it is not an institution that will serve only particular interests but one that can come up with an honest compromise that all its members can accept with a minimum degree of comfort.

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