Death-Defying Doha

October 28, 2009


Just as the World Trade Organisation is organizing an intensive push to complete the Doha round trade talks, the atmosphere among negotiators is as pessimistic as it ever has been. 


“Gloom” and “frustration” are just two of the more printable words circulating at the WTO’s headquarters by Lake Geneva.




Even WTO chief Pascal Lamy says that Doha – already the longest running trade round  – will not meet the latest 2010 deadline set by G20 leaders unless governments really instruct their negotiators to make the necessary compromises, and negotiators start to put those compromises down on paper.

Lamy, who suspended the round in 2006 but has led a renewed push for the last three years, and others point to the enormous progress made towards a deal in eight tortuous years.

The rules-based trading system umpired by the WTO also offers a powerful contrast to the lack of global order in international finance, and a possible model to improve it.

But many experts are asking whether the round – officially known as the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) – can ever be completed given the changes in the world economy and international agenda since it was launched at the end of 2001 to prise open markets and help developing countries benefit from more trade.

Stuart Harbinson, who presided over the launch of Doha as chairman of the WTO’s general council, wonders in a new paper published by think-tank ECIPE whether DDA should stand for Death-Defying Agenda or just Don’t Do It Again.

“The round may refuse to die but it also apparently refuses to haul itself over the finishing line,” Harbinson says.

“It is hard to avoid a feeling that an elaborate dance is being performed. Commitment after commitment has been made to bring the dance to a conclusion, but the music plays endlessly on.”

Harbinson says it would be a huge pity to abandon the hard work of the past decade. Wiping the slate clean and beginning again, or inserting new topics, are probably non-starters given the difficulty of  agreeing on the parameters of a negotiation, while many issues that have so far proved stumbling blocks would re-appear.

But if governments move on and Doha just fades away, there is a real risk of damage to the credibility of the WTO and its valuable work in trade dispute settlement, and monitoring trade policy for protectionist trends.

AITIC, an intergovernmental organization that promotes trade-led growth in poor countries, says that 2009 probably holds the record for high-level international gatherings ending with ringing endorsements of the need to do a Doha deal – but with nothing on the specifics of what needs to be done.

(Watch for another call at the APEC Nov. 14-15 summit in Singapore.)

“The harsh reality is that the substance of the differences between the major players… has not changed for over a year, arguably for three or four years,” AITIC says in a new report – Concluding Doha in 2010 – A Serious Commitment or Baseless Hope?

Everyone agrees a Doha deal, at the very least, would reinforce defences against job-destroying protectionism.

Some studies, such as one by Washington’s Peterson Institute for International Economics, say a deal could boost the world economy by hundreds of billions of dollars a year (other economists disagree).

Developing countries are desperate for a deal which would remove some of the disadvantages they suffer in the global trading system, especially in agriculture.

A trade deal would demonstrate the global community’s ability to work together as it tackles other problems like climate change.

But there are few votes to be had pushing trade in the United States or many other countries nowadays, and many businesses seem to have turned their back on Doha.

Is it going to happen? Does it matter?

PHOTO CREDIT: Tightrope walker REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

PHOTO CREDIT: WTO headquarters REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

PHOTO CREDIT: Pascal Lamy REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

One comment

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Jonathan: this is great, but you were welcome to have quoted my paper with its doubts on whether DOHA can ever succeed if WTO continues to follow the same approach as it has up to now. It has been published as a Policy Brief by ECIPE. Are you planning a part two?

Posted by Roderick ABBOTT | Report as abusive