Why Nairobi WTO conference must deliver for Africa

Trade negotiators from across the globe have up to Friday to agree on the agenda for the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) ministerial conference to be held in Nairobi— the first to be held in Africa.

The latest dispatch from the WTO indicates that negotiators who began to arrive in Geneva from Sunday have been given the short timeline to “agree on the remaining Doha Round issues and develop an outcome document for the 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi.”

The ministers have opted for “renegotiated outcome” after it became clear that Nairobi Conference slated for December 15 to 18 would not give the world a common trade policy.

While the WTO has also ruled out possibility of striking a comprehensive deal that incorporates all the contentious issues, the outcome document being developed is expected to provide timeline for handling every outstanding issue.

“It would be disastrous if Nairobi Conference failed,” said Ms Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s foreign affairs and international trade secretary who is set to chair the December Ministerial Conference.  

“I have been consulting widely with my African colleagues. They all want the Nairobi forum to succeed for the continent. They want WTO members to make concessions that are realistic and built on Bali outcomes.”

To Ms Mohamed, who once headed the powerful WTO General Council, the Nairobi meeting will be deemed successful if it avoids the kind of deadlocks witnessed in past ministerial conferences. “Even if we can’t get all that we expect, Nairobi must reaffirm the negotiation role of WTO,” she said.

Among the issues that remain outstanding since the search for a common global trade policy started in Qatar 14 years ago (Doha Round One), the developing states such as Kenya want to be allowed to subsidise their agriculture and lock out imports that threaten their manufacturing industries.

The least developed countries (LDCs) such as Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda have been pushing for improved access of their products to rich country markets, trade and technical assistance and product diversification support.

READ: Politicians and civil society push for changes to WTO negotiations

“The extension of the $1.3 trillion Information technology agreement is likely to be finalised in Nairobi. We could also have agreement on the list of environmental goods on which tariffs will be slashed,” says WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell. “But many big ticket issues will not be decided before or at Nairobi.”

To agree on the outcome document for Nairobi, negotiators are expected to get the United States and European Union to put aside their push for open public tenders, liberalisation of service sectors and strict intellectual property rights that they have been fighting to include in the Doha list. 

“Generally, Nairobi forum would be considered successful if it concludes Doha Rounds in whatever form and launch search for a new global pact known as Nairobi Round. That’s the ultimate success we all aim for in Nairobi, but it is impossible,” Mr Daniel Owoko, a long time negotiator for Kenya told the Business Daily in Geneva.

“The likely outcome will therefore be small, largely sympathetic package of issues that are LDC-related,” said Mr Owoko, who is currently serving as special aisor to UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi.

Of all the possible outcomes, insiders have ruled out emotive activism and walkouts that have stalled WTO negotiations in the past.  The LDCs and developing states —the blocs that normally trigger the fallouts— have currently taken the driver`s seat.

Africa, which has the highest concentration of LDCs is hosting and chairing the ministerial forum for the first time. Mr Roberto Azevêdo, the WTO Director-General is a citizen of Brazil, a developing country.

“We must ensure that Nairobi is a success — and that it delivers for Africa. We still face very significant challenges. Despite intense efforts this year, we have made little progress on the core Doha issues.” Mr Azevêdo acknowledges in a statement issued last week.

The statement adds: “A package of development and LDC issues would be at the heart of any such outcome. An agreement on export competition in agriculture would be the WTO’s first ever negotiated outcome on agriculture. In addition, it may be possible to deliver some measures to increase transparency in some areas of trade policy, potentially covering issues such as antidumping and fisheries subsidies.”

“These potential deliverables could have real economic and developmental significance — particularly for Africa, which could be the biggest winner of the ministerial conference. I am working hard to make sure that we deliver for Africa.”

David Ochieng, an international trade dispute resolution expert shares the sentiments. He says Nairobi Conference can only unlock the more than a decade-old stalemate if members agree to harvest the low hanging fruits.

“The ministers have been struggling with an unnecessarily heavy burden. The only way out is for ministers to craft an agreement based on areas already agreed upon and terminate Doha Round in favour of a completely new Nairobi pact,” Mr Ochieng who is currently serving as Ugenya MP told the Business Daily in Geneva.

Apart from harvesting the low-hanging fruits of the Doha Rounds, WTO members expected to use the Nairobi forum to rally states to sign the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA).

The TFA protocol – which will ensure that world customs bodies adopt similar procedures, automations and transparency measures – will enter into force once two-thirds of members have completed their domestic ratification process, easing cross border movement of cargo.