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WTO STEALS A MARCH ON INTERNATIONAL NGOS

Binu S. Thomas*


Kampala, 9 Oct 99 (TWN) -- As international NGOs gird up against the WTO and its Seattle meet, and lobby Western governments in capitals and their WTO missions in Geneva, over the lack of transparency and democratic decision-making in the WTO, the latter is trying to win over trade officials and policy-makers in developing world, particularly in Africa.

Through seminars, symposia and workshops, run with experts and 'resource persons' advocating the WTO ideology, participants selected to exclude any local knowledgeable critics, and such activities funded (through trust funds) by western donor governments of Europe, a constituency is being sought to be built-up.

During a meeting organised in Kampala early October by three NGOs to brief parliamentarians, NGOs and the local media about the WTO and food security in the context of the upcoming Seattle Ministerial meeting of the world body, it became clear that WTO has been quietly 'selling' the various agreements in the South.

An official of the ministry of trade of the Government of Uganda spoke of an ongoing capacity building programme at the grassroots level to understand the various agreements and regulations that the WTO was paying for. The official sought greater NGO and farmer participation in the same.

But a freelance journalist, Joe Nam, told the meeting of a WTO seminar held at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Kampala earlier this year where an American facilitator was preparing a select group of government officials, private sector representatives and some NGOs for the Seattle meeting. "When I pointed out that the regulations of the WTO were tailored to favour the developed countries and not the least developed," Nam recalled, the facilitator responded with 'Who are you? Who brought you here?'.

Nam told the meeting, "the facilitator then added he had been warned before he came to Uganda of the type of audience he should have and who were to be admitted to the seminar."

There is little doubt that the WTO is trying to quietly build up a constituency for itself in the South. The paucity of NGO efforts to explain the nature of the organisation, the different agreements and their implications for developing countries to audiences in the South has apparently created a vacuum that the WTO is busy filling.

To a large part, international NGOs are to blame for this state of affairs. They have focused their energies lobbying Western governments on the WTO in Geneva and other Western capitals and have spent very little time and money in sensitising NGOs, other civil society groups and governments in the South.

Huge amounts of money are spent flying staff, including from Southern countries, to Brussels, Geneva, Seattle, etc to lobby WTO decision makers with very little effect, while the more modest sums and programmes to build up awareness and alliances among policy makers and civil society in the South are not forthcoming.

More still, international NGOs have failed to build wider consensus within the South on note-worthy regional initiatives such as the Organisation of Africa Unity draft model legislation on community rights and access to biological resources and the recent Africa Group Position on TRIPS Article 27.3 (b).

These, given the right support, could considerably strengthen developing countries vis-a-vis their developed country counterparts who currently call the shots in the WTO.

Advocacy is still by and large perceived by international NGOs as something that has to be led from their head offices in London, Paris or Brussels. There is great reluctance to give their offices based in developing countries a greater say in running international campaigns. Various excuses are trotted out including the fear that country-offices may overstep their limits and create political problems for the trustees of international NGOs, who sometimes are personally liable under Charity law and who, more often than not, are all Westerners.

In actual fact, with field operations (including local fund-raising) being increasingly controlled by offices in developing countries, many international development NGOs feel advocacy is one area they need to hold on to at their headquarters, in order to justify a continued investment in their Northern operations.

The involvement of Southern counterparts is often restricted to generating research data to be used by Northern advocates to convince Western policy makers of the ill-effects of their policies or to have the message occasionally delivered by a black or brown spokesperson from the South.

All this has led to most international NGO advocacy campaigns being excessively focused on appealing to the goodwill of Western governments to give concessions to the South rather than on building the capacity of the South to pressure Western policy makers to provide the concessions.

For instance, one of the current obsessions of international NGOs is the demand that the WTO (read: Western governments) find funds for greater Southern participation in its decision-making processes.

It is argued that most African countries, in particular, have serious financial difficulties in sending delegates to represent them at the various meetings in Geneva and some sort of financial package needs to be put in place to facilitate this.

The absurdity of asking Western governments to come up with the funds to enable Southern governments to block their will being enforced at the WTO seems to have been lost on those making the demand.

In fact, the prime problem is that most campaigns run by international NGOs lack a historical perspective of the issue that forms the subject of the campaign.

Few, for example, have drawn a parallel between the WTO and the situation prevailing in developing countries barely half a century ago.

At that time, when most developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America were colonies of the developed world, trade rules between the colonies and the colonial power were set in London, Paris and other Western capitals.

Today, under the WTO, these rules are being framed for the world multilaterally in Geneva by London, Paris, Washington and other big powers, often acting in concert.

The location has changed, but little else.

A century ago, London prevented the export of textiles from India by imposing very high tariffs on finished goods and low tariffs on raw cotton. This enabled England to become a world leader in textiles.

Today a similar situation exists under the WTO where high tariffs are imposed on semi-processed and processed exports from developing countries by the developed world.

Uganda every year gets lower revenue for the coffee beans it exports, even as countries like Germany, which impose very high tariffs on imports of processed coffee from Uganda and other least developed countries, have built for themselves a flourishing business in exports of processed coffee.

Yet, international NGOs continue to blindly demand greater market access for developing country exports of agricultural produce under the Agreement on Agriculture into developed countries.

In many cases these demands do not discriminate between unprocessed and processed exports and developed countries can comfortably make further reductions in tariffs of unprocessed imports which will only further enhance their own competitiveness of the processed commodity.

As a result countries like Uganda, for which exports of coffee beans constitute over 80% of export earnings, have little hope of becoming anything other than low-value raw material producers for the developed world.

The food security situation in these countries will continue to worsen as more land gets diverted from food crops to producing cash crops like coffee for the export market and coffee producers get lower revenues, thanks to the resultant glut, with which they can buy food from the market.

In Uganda, only about 30% of arable land is currently under plough and the country, which is widely touted as a model when it comes to faithfully implementing IMF/World Bank prescriptions, is preparing to commercialise its agriculture on a large scale with a major role envisaged for foreign plantation companies.

Last month the government produced a draft 'Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture' in Uganda. The plan reveals the shocking fact that the agriculture sector in Uganda, which contributes 42% to GDP, 80% to rural employment and 90% to export earnings, receives only about 1.4% of total national expenditure.

The expenditure on prisons is larger than that on agriculture.

Yet, there is very little attention being given by international NGOs advocating improved food security for countries like Uganda on policy changes that need to be carried out within the country to better prepare it for the hard times ahead. It seems inevitable that unless efforts are made to reallocate resources and increase the abysmally low levels of government spending on agriculture in countries like Uganda, the entire sector could fall into the hands of transnational capital under World Bank-inspired plans to industrialise Southern agriculture.

It has not dawned on international NGOs that rather than demanding more market access for Southern countries in developed markets, preparing them to reduce exports of cash crops like coffee to the West may actually be a more effective strategy to both improve local food production and increase their bargaining power in international trade as OPEC countries have shown in the case of oil.

The lack of historical perspective among international campaign NGOs also explains the somewhat uncritical reaction to the recent US decision to write off the debt of many highly-indebted poor countries.

Many of these countries, including Uganda, which benefited from President Clinton's pronouncement are those which are being targeted by transnational corporations who currently face entry problems in terms of the huge debt overhang.

With the debt slate being wiped clean through the use of US taxpayers funds, the ground is prepared for the greater penetration of transnationals into these least developed economies.

That the debt write-offs have been proposed just before the crucial Seattle Ministerial of the WTO, in which the US would be counting on the beneficiary states to support its transnationals- led agenda, cannot be overlooked.

International NGOs need to urgently revisit their campaign strategies. They need to give greater space to their Southern counterparts to influence the campaign agenda. The excessive focus on lobbying the rich and the powerful to make concessions for the South will not produce the desired results.

Time and money will have to be invested in the less glamorous task of building alliances between governments and civil society in the South to resist impositions by Western powers.

Above all, international NGO campaigns for a fairer deal for developing countries need to be grounded in a political-economy perspective that is often sorely lacking. (SUNS4527)

(The author works for an international NGO and is based in Bangalore, India. He was recently in Uganda and contributed this article to the SUNS).

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