7 NOVEMBER 2001
Cartoon this week: Doing the donkey work
All eyes on Doha, especially those of the hungry
On Friday, ministers from some 142 countries will converge on the town of Doha in oil-rich Qatar for the latest gathering of the World Trade Organisation. And once again, the fate of those living in abject poverty throughout the third world areas in Africa, Asia and South America will lie in the hands, well-acquainted with the art of lifting fork to mouth, of those gathered there.
While the meeting, which has the scope of setting an agenda for a new round of global trade negotiations has been scaled down following the ominous events of 11 September, most countries are nevertheless sending their top officials and only a handful have opted out.
The question on the tips of everyones tongues is whether the WTO will emerge from the summit any closer to reducing trade barriers than they were able to at the Seattle summit when violent protests wreaked havoc on the summit.
However, the stakes are high as a similar failure to reach any consensus at Doha could spell out the end of any hope for future global talks at a time when they are most needed. This, given the fact that international trade growth is pegged at less than two per cent this year, in contrast to last years 12 per cent.
In fact, the global slow-down is poignant these days, with no economic official left unscathed by the prospect, sometimes tangible and at other times more like a foreboding dark cloud on the horizon, of declining revenues.
Of course, security will be placed high on the agenda this weekend, in order to avoid a fiasco such as that witnessed two years ago in Seattle. In fact, Qatar has reportedly stopped issuing visas to those not directly connected with the WTO meeting, in a bid to keep protestors out of the country.
Nevertheless, whatever emerges from the meeting will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on the worlds poorest people, which is what the rioters of the so-called Battle of Seattle, who believe that the WTO is the root of all evil, were protesting about.
However, while this rapidly growing counter-culture is adamant that free trade is the hurdle keeping the worlds poor pinned to their unfortunate predicaments, the problem lies more in the way that free trade is practised by the rich, industrialised countries. The tangible results of the way in which such trade is carried out are piteous.
The developing world over the last two decades has halved its import tariffs, after bowing to extensive pressure applied by the WTO and World Bank. These bodies have consistently insisted on such cuts in order to facilitate the exporting of goods from the richer countries to the very same poverty-afflicted nations.
Sadly, the deal has not been reciprocated. Instead, industrialised nations have cut down on trade tariffs between each other and it is now thought that close to 60% of the worlds trading activities pass through these biased channels, leaving the worlds poorest countries scrambling for crumbs.
In fact, the World Bank has estimated that the trade barriers enforced by the developed countries, with the help of the World Bank and the WTO, cost developing countries twice the amount they receive in aid each year.
Rural areas are home to some three-quarters of the worlds poor, who have been continuously urged to produce cash crops for export at a cheap price to the developed world. The practice effectively swallows up a high percentage of arable land for the exclusively exportable produce, while the poor starve and perish from malnutrition. Even so, and with little alternative, the poor still struggle to export against high export tariffs.
In addition to adjusting these trade barriers, education is another way of helping these countries to find their footing in todays world. But a worryingly high percentage of African children will not be going to school today or in the next decade and those lucky enough to attend school at all will get three or four years of education tops.
The United Nations targeted aid benchmark for rich countries to poor has stood at 0.7 per cent of their GDP, but sadly today the figure stands at a measly 0.22 per cent.
So, for heavens sake, lets not have a repeat of Seattle - lets let the ministers get on with setting an agenda for tackling these problems. Who knows, with the heightened awareness of humanitarian causes that has arisen over the last month and a half, perhaps some headway will finally be made.