Africa gets ready for upcoming WTO meeting
HARARE, April - African states no longer want to be like guests invited to dinner and forced, therefore, to follow a predetermined menu, according to the continent's trade ministers.
It is high time they play an active part in designing the agenda of trade negotiations and shaping their results, the ministers said at the first meeting of ministers of trade and experts of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the African Economic Community (AEC).
The aim of the meeting was to finalise Africa's preparation for the second ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to be held in Geneva from 18 to 20 May.
The idea was to avoid being caught by surprise as occurred at the first WTO ministerial meeting, held in Singapore in December.
While the main industrialised nations went to the December meeting to defend clearly defined interests, proposals from the African countries came mainly in reaction to those tabled by their developed partners.
This, observers say, is due at least in part to Africa's failure to clearly define its own development path and the steps it aims to take to pursue it, including in the area of trade.
Since they tend not to have a positive agenda, African countries have found themselves seeking time-bound exemptions from trade obligations instead of trying to minimise the negative impact of those obligations, which make it harder for them to use policy instruments to achieve developmental objectives.
On the other hand, some of the industrialised countries have been actively trying to introduce new issues into the WTO's agenda, including the link between trade and investment, labour standards and environmental requirements.
This compounds the difficulties of African states since they have already been struggling with limited resources to meet obligations arising out of the WTO agreements they have signed onto.
The African trade ministers said that before any new issue is added, consideration needs to be given to their nations' weak institutional and technical capacity for trade negotiations.
The ministers noted that they were mainly concerned with not being bombarded with new issues by the developed countries.
''Any new negotiations are premature as the WTO agenda is already overburdened,'' the ministers agreed at the end of their meeting. ''African countries need to identify their interests and concerns with the respect to possible new issues on world trade.''
Civil society organisations present at the ministers' meeting also felt that Africa should oppose the inclusion of new issues in the WTO's agenda.
They also noted that African nations needed to press for a shift in the present orientation of the WTO, which is being used as a tool for furthering the economic interests of some countries and their companies.
''We are of the view that the new issues which were added at the Singapore ministerial meeting which will before the May WTO conference represent another set of levers intended to further prise our economies open for the benefit of the economies of the North and TNC's,'' said the African Trade Network (ATN), a grouping of NGOs, trade unions, advocacy groups and research institutions.
May's ministerial conference will consider two main items: implementation of the WTO work programme and future activities of the WTO. The general preference of the developing countries is to focus on the work programme so as to raise some of their concerns in key areas.
The ministers agreed that, to enhance the effective participation of African countries in the multilateral trading system, a national trade policy framework needed to be defined as an integral part of national development objectives.
Other recommendations focussed on the need to develop strong focal points on WTO and trade policy issues in Africa's capitals, to enhance the competitiveness of African countries, and to strengthen African missions in Geneva, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Currently, more than 20 African countries are not represented in Geneva and those that are, generally have too few people and even fewer qualified experts in the various aspects of trade.
African countries, they recommended, should ensure that multilateral trade rules support their efforts to build their export capacity and their technological and human-resource potential, and to exploit their national resources.
The meeting was attended by trade ministers from Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Libya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.