Doha Round: a laborious and threatened harvest

Thailand is among the world's biggest rice producers.
Launched by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the Doha Round is now deadlocked. Hardly any headway has been made in 15 years. Despite this, Alliance Sud favours the multilateral path over bilateral or regional free trade agreements.

The Doha Round began in 2001 in the Qatari capital. This WTO negotiating round was meant to be concluded in three years and to make international trade rules fairer for countries in the South. Fifteen years on, the Doha Round is at a standstill.

Alliance Sud has also participated in all subsequent WTO Ministerial Conferences: Doha (2001), Cancun (2003), Hong Kong (2005), Geneva (2009 and 2011), Bali (2013) and Nairobi (2015). On each occasion Alliance Sud has prepared a position paper discussing the main points of contention and formulating demands to Switzerland.

Alliance Sud favours an "early harvest"

In November 2009, just before the Ministerial Conference, Alliance Sud came out in favour of an "early harvest", which would safeguard the negotiating successes scored by developing countries over the previous eight years. These were:

  • Elimination of agricultural export subsidies by 2013
  • reduction of trade-distorting domestic support in agriculture
  • trade facilitation by reducing technical and bureaucratic barriers
  • the possibility to suspend patents on drugs in the event of pandemics
  • duty-free and quota-free market access for least developed countries (LDCs).

For many years now the industrialized countries, led by the USA, have been trying to bury the Doha Round. The reason is the lack of progress in the areas that are of interest to them – liberalization of industrial products, services and new issues such as investment, competition policy, government procurement, e-commerce, etc.

The December 2015 Nairobi Ministerial Conference furthermore adopted a controversial declaration which, while failing to announce the conclusion of the Doha Round, can be interpreted as de facto proclaiming the end of the "single undertaking". This consists in the principle whereby "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

Progress on agricultural exports subsidies

The 163 WTO Member Countries in Nairobi meanwhile began finding common ground on the elimination of agricultural export subsidies. If consolidated, this progress would be significant. For too long the rules of agriculture have allowed industrialized countries to subsidize their farmers to the tune of billions of dollars while not permitting developing countries to do likewise

This price dumping is extremely harmful to small farmers in the countries of the South. Export subsidies in the narrow sense still exist only in Switzerland, Norway and Canada. By 2020 therefore, Switzerland must abolish the "Chocolate law", as it serves to subsidize the export of processed agricultural goods.

Hardly any cuts have been made to other export promotion instruments still in extensive use by the USA and the EU, namely credit for export promotion, for State-trading enterprises and food aid.

Impasse over domestic support

Reducing domestic support meanwhile remains a truly perennial issue. There are ever more frequent disputes over the distorting effect of these "green" and "blue box" subsidies. Agreement on this dossier seems a long way off, as the USA is not prepared to make any concessions for as long as emerging countries that have themselves begun providing domestic support refuse to budge.

Trade facilitation: implementation must be monitored

The elimination of bureaucratic barriers was one of the things agreed on during the Bali Ministerial Conference in 2013. It is to be hoped that the world's 49 poorest countries receive adequate support in this connection, as they have priorities other than modernizing and digitizing their customs procedures.

Intellectual property: discrepancy between theory and practice

Agreement has been reached, at least in theory, on the possibility to suspend patents on drugs in the event of pandemics. This affords developing countries an opportunity to produce or import generic drugs. In actual fact such importation has occurred only once and the industrialized countries are resisting any facilitation of it. In its free trade agreements with developing countries, Switzerland always insists on stricter provisions for the protection of intellectual property, and these stand in the way of any such facilitation. This is one of the major stumbling blocks in the ongoing negotiations with India.

LDCS: a completely watered-down package

Lastly, the LDCs called for the implementation of the "services waiver" adopted in 2011, which entails the non-reciprocal easing of market access for services from LDCs – Switzerland introduced this in July 2015. This part of the package has now become so watered-down by comparison with the original proposals, that there are no further objections to it. It contains vague commitments on the part of industrialized countries to cut the subsidies they pay to their cotton producers and to grant improved market access for products from LDCs.

The WTO is preferable to free trade

Fourteen years after the start of the Doha Round, the Ministerial Conference adopted a very vague agreement. Despite this very mixed outcome, Alliance Sud views the WTO as the last international framework in which to discuss crucial issues of development and trade, especially the question of agricultural subsidies. A multilateral trade organization which lays down clear rules that take account of the different development levels of its members is preferable to bilateral and regional free trade agreements. It is better suited than the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (the negotiations of which have been suspended in September 2016) between the USA and the EU, in which industrialized countries impose standards which sooner or later will have to be adopted by all other countries, more particularly developing countries, which were not involved in the negotiations.

Political field