With the collapse of global trade talks on Sunday, poorer African and Asian nations may have missed a chance for long-sought trade reforms, but they forged a stronger unity that could bring them gains in the long run. The Sept. 10-14 talks in Cancun, Mexico, were intended to build on the World Trade Organization's development agenda initiated at Doha in 2001. The breakdown is yet another setback for the WTO, which has already missed key deadlines for creating fairer trade among nations, but the organization is planning a meeting of its leadership in December to try to resurrect the talks.
In Cancun, a group of developing countries—among them South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, Malaysia, and India—banded together to fight for agricultural policies more favorable to the world's poorer populations, namely deep cuts in the United States' and European Union's domestic farm subsidies, lower tariffs, and a lifting of export subsidies. Papers said some are portraying the talks' demise—marked by a walkout by delegates from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean—as a turning point signaling that the rich will no longer be able to ignore the pleas of the developing world. Anti-globalization activists cheered the collapse.
African trade representatives left the talks empty-handed, most crucially without a deal to cut the U.S. agricultural subsidies African leaders say are gutting their people's livelihoods. According to Britain's Guardian, a Malian trade representative came away from the meeting saying, "This is a great loss to the 3 million farmers in Mali who live on agriculture. We are at the world cup of agriculture here and back home there will be mourning because nothing had been agreed. I do not know how we will explain this to our people."
Still, in Johannesburg's Business Day, South Africa's trade minister said the unity of developing nations on key trade issues "marked a new chapter and a new dynamic in WTO negotiations and this could be decisive in advancing negotiations to address the basic structural fault line in the global economy that obstructs development and growth." The paper quoted the official saying, "Our disappointment at not achieving a concrete outcome in Cancun is tempered by the advances that have been made."
It is uncertain how decisive a shift this will ultimately prove to be. Canada's Globe and Mail said there is concern that the breakdown will lead richer countries to seek deals with a few select nations. The risk now, the paper said, is that "major players such as the United States will turn their energies to separate, smaller trade deals with preferred partners only. This could hobble a decade of efforts to establish a single, level playing field worldwide and set off a retreat to regional trading blocs, trade watchers say." The Guardian reported that U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick, who criticized some developing nations' WTO representatives for the unwillingness to negotiate, said as much—that "after the setback in Cancun, the U.S. would redouble its efforts to reach bilateral trade deals with favoured nations."
The papers said WTO members made some progress on long-contentious agricultural issues, but it was the European Union's insistence on negotiating the so-called "Singapore issues"—cross-border investment, competition policies, trade facilitation, and transparency in government procurement—in exchange for a deal on farm subsidies that led to the breakdown. A number of developing nations were unprepared to discuss these topics at the Cancun conference. Johannesburg's Business Report reported that some developing countries said including these points in the Cancun talks "would put unnecessary burdens on poor states."
The Times of London echoed a widespread concern that the breakdown in Cancun spells a missed opportunity to give the global economy a much-needed boost. According to the paper, Argentina's chief negotiator said the WTO would now be unable to conclude a treaty by 2004, which "the World Bank had said would add as much as $520 billion to global incomes by 2015 and lift 144 million people out of poverty." The paper said the impasse also dealt a blow to President Bush, "who had made a series of calls to the leaders of developing nations over the past few days in an attempt to broker an agreement."
Uganda's Monitor accused that country's leaders of supporting the United States' goals at the expense of the interests of developing nations. The paper said President Yoweri Museveni instructed Uganda's delegation "to support the United States position on all issues, even if these were against the position adopted by the African Union and all third world countries." The Guardian reported that a Ugandan delegate at the talks accused the United States, Japan, and the European Union of "trying to blackmail poor countries."