Monday, December 12, 2005

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What happens at a WTO Ministerial -- day one

One would assume that a minister-level meeting of a big international governmental organization like the WTO would consist of a lot of big plenary sessions combined with backroom, smoke-filled, coffee-laden negotiations. This is probably true, but in the era of NGOs and mass media coverage, there's a new wrinkle to these kind of meetings -- all of the NGO-related public panels designed to attract NGO reps and reporters who cannot attend the back-room sessions.

The result is a weird amalgamation of quasi-academic workshop and floating press conference. NGOs supply a bevy of panels, roundtables, and speeches -- the goal being to attract as much press coverage as possible (see Victor Mallet and Justine Lau's story in the Financial Times for more on this). The conundrum is that the substance of trade issues are so mind-numbingly boring that just uttering the word "modalities" sends most reporters into a coma.

The result is that the events that capture the most attention are the ones with the greatest celebrity or the greatest divergence of views. Yesterday, for example, OxFam attracted a great deal of press coverage for its handoff of a petition to WTO Director General Pascal Lamy. Part of this was because Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal was there as official OxFam presenter (Bernal also succeeded in generating a fair amount of swooning from many of the female attendants and not a small number of male ones).

For an example of divergence of views, there is the debate that I'm sitting in as I type this, between WTO official Alejandro Jara (he's fer trade) vs. director of Focus on the Global South Walden Bello (he's agin' it). At this debate, the press outnumbers the attendants 4 to 1.

The trick at these sort of meetings is to separate the wheat from the chaff -- most of the time, these meetings are an exercise in repeating talking points. Occasionally, someone will say something edifying. In this case, the only illuminating statement was made by Jara, who pointed out that despite the image of horsetrading among member countries during the Doha round, there have been no new commitments to liberalize for the Doha round -- just a commitment to lock in prior, autonomous, unilateral moves towards liberalization. This does not bode well for these meetings -- because without some horse trading, nothing's gonna happen.

There was a defender of ag subsidies at the meeting, however. A U.S. soybean farmer piped up halfway through, arguing that international competition ruins the small family farmer. This has a grain of truth to it in the developed world, but I don't see why agriculture is so special -- last I checked, there are no subsidies for hunter-gatherers being proposed. The farmer's cure for this was "supply management," which as near as I could discern was a polite term for.... government support for family farms.


posted by Dan on 12.12.05 at 10:25 PM


So it isn't true that "What happens at a WTO Ministerial stays at a WTO Ministerial"?

posted by: bp on 12.12.05 at 10:25 PM [permalink]

Dan, in farm program jargon "supply management" is shorthand for production quotas. Since subsidies induce increases in production, thereby increasing supply, thereby lowering market prices, advocates of supply management advocate government-imposed quotas on what each farmer can sell on the market.

posted by: Zathras on 12.12.05 at 10:25 PM [permalink]

Aren't the agreements at G-8 and other economic summit meetings substantially worked out by staff ahead of time?

posted by: David Billington on 12.12.05 at 10:25 PM [permalink]

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal was there

Ooh! He was dating the hotness that is Natalie Portman! Was she there? Prolly not, huh?

posted by: fling93 on 12.12.05 at 10:25 PM [permalink]

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