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Interests of poor countries heard at WTO meeting

Still smarting from the humiliation of having to curtail its meeting in Seattle two years ago, the World Trade Organization adopted a more sympathetic attitude toward the concerns of its poorer members at Qatar last month. The final document acknowledges the need for special treatment of poor countries within the World Trade Organization’s rules dealing with freedom of trade and intellectual property rights.

Public health needs are recognized as taking precedence over protection of patents.

The Qatar meeting listed 12 major issues -- including food, dumping of steel and textiles, opening markets and access to drugs -- on which to pursue negotiations before the next WTO meeting two years from now. Given the limited resources the poorest countries can allocate to highly technical discussions, the work can be expected to take much longer, perhaps an entire decade.

Among the most urgent issues for both the poorest countries and such intermediate countries as Australia and New Zealand is food. Uppermost is concern over the dumping by the United States and the European Community of surplus food, especially corn, soybeans and wheat, on the world market at prices below the cost of production. If the WTO were to compel countries to open their markets to this food, subsistence farmers everywhere would be forced out of business, leaving consumers to the mercies of the few megafirms that control international food distribution.

CAFOD, the agency for overseas development of England’s Catholic bishops, played an important role in briefing delegates on the issues, explaining, for example, the extent of U.S. subsidies for agriculture, with direct payments last year totaling $22.9 billion. That amount represents nearly half of the net cash incomes of farmers in this country, with two thirds of it going to the largest producers. A bill now before Congress would increase the figure significantly.

Farmers everywhere are also threatened by the expansion of patent rights. In a letter sent shortly before the Qatar meeting, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) urged the State Department to prevent the WTO from making farmers pay royalties on patented animals and from having them pay license fees on genetically modified seeds. He would also prohibit the development and sale of sterile seeds, make patent owners or holders liable for any impact on health or environment, as well as damage from lower prices, lost markets or contamination. None of these issues is raised in the final document.

The United States was on the defensive at Qatar on two levels, because it protects its steel and textile industries against imports and subsidizes its agriculture, and because it defends the interests of the transnational corporations, most of which are based in this country. The major transnational interest at stake was patent rights and copyrights. The drug sector has the most heavily financed -- and consequently most influential public relations operation in Washington, with more lobbyists than there are members of Congress.

Of major concern for India, Brazil and many countries of Africa is the cost of drugs to combat such scourges as AIDS, malaria and pneumonia. Their delegates seized on the declarations of spokespersons for the U.S. government who had stated publicly that they would, if necessary, override patent rights to drugs needed to fight the threatened terrorist attacks with anthrax. Delegates from the poorer countries would, they insisted, use the same right of eminent domain to deal with their own epidemics.

The Qatar meeting ended without resolving any of the major issues that divide the World Trade Organization’s 142 members. The European Union and the United States stand firm against the demands of poor countries that export farm products that they end subsidies to agriculture. The United States continues to keep out textiles from Bangladesh and other countries, imposing punitive duties on imports that threaten domestic producers. All of the countries involved remain at the start of protracted negotiations.

If trade rules are to be changed to benefit the world’s poor, the pious hopes expressed in the final document will need to be converted into action. “Much will depend on the developing countries consolidating their newfound strength,” George Gelber of CAFOD said, “and on the North learning to listen more, and bully and preach a good deal less.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001