QUNO in Hong Kong: Much ado about nothing?
|BMW ad near airport - M. Kunz
Right outside Hong Kong Airport is a huge billboard announcing 'The new BMW 7 Series' as 'The official limousine of the WTO Hong Kong ministerial'. Which makes one wonder whether the setting of the event is perhaps somewhat at odds with the official aim of creating the conditions that trade can overcome poverty.
And while the Quaker contingent is not treated to the Limousine service, it still resides in a very comfortable hotel, is part of an in-group of Non Governmental Organization (NGO) people (over 1000 accredited groups with more than 2300 people present). Many of whom seem to spend most of their time talking to each other, attending each other's information seminars, events, ... Interaction with official delegates is limited, in part because the negotiations are in a part of the building which is mostly off limits to NGO people and press.
And what becomes clear fairly quickly is that even though the WTO may now have 149 members, with a vote each, the ones who decide are a few key players: The US and the EU (presently engaged in a mudslinging exercise trying to blame each other for the failure of the talks, which seems likely), and Brazil and India: The new G4. Which is a highly interesting development: Two of the four key players were not at the core of negotiations when the WTO was founded, were part of the 'developing world' which had no real voice. One can expect that group to expand soon into a G5, because there will be little point in such discussions unless China is at the core of decision making, too. Former 'key countries' like Canada and Australia simply have lost importance in the new economic world order: Their economies are too small compared to the growing giants from the South.
|"Interaction with official delegates is limited" - M. Kunz
So is it worth the time, effort, and cost for QUNO to be here, too, trying not to promote Quakers, but the two specific concerns: The right of farmers to their seeds (and related issues under TRIPS, the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) - which so far seem to play only a minor part in the ongoing horse trading involving mainly agricultural subsidies and NAMA (Non-Agricultural Market Access). And GATS 'mode 4' - the topic of the trans-border-provision of services in the 'shape' of people. Not just computer experts from India going to the US for a limited period of time, but (potentially) street cleaners, builders, farm workers doing so legally, not as immigrants, but as 'service providers', possibly covered by minimum wage regulations in the host country (or maybe not), legally linked to their home governments, not those of the host country.
Which is why e.g. the Philippines are keen for a agreement: They want to be able to provide assistance to Philippine workers in the Middle East, Hong Kong, the US, who may be in trouble due to scrupulous employment agencies or employers. And at present they have no legal basis to help, particularly not if the person in question is an illegal immigrant.
Being able to compete with low cost labour, a classic 'cost advantage' of poor countries not just in export oriented factories and production zones, but within the buying countries in the North is therefore, not totally surprisingly, a key demand of the group of least developed countries at the present WTO-negotiations - some say: the only demand - and one which the probably will not get.
In part, because e.g. India is striking a 'sweetheart-deal' with the US bilaterally, and is no longer automatically a champion of the poor (contrary to some rhetoric). In part, because governments in rich countries would have to 'sell' such a deal to exactly those people, who are most vulnerable in their own societies: Those with limited skills and education, who are at present already competing for the low income jobs with workers from the new EU member countries (another group adamantly opposed to a deal on 'mode 4').
Can the presence and the efforts of QUNO make a difference here? For one, it is probably presumptious to presume that QUNO can succeed where 145 government delegations probably would stand little chance to succeed. For another, the fact that there are hundreds of official delegates walking around aimlessly, because they are not part of the negotiating process either, suggests that a ministerial conference is perhaps not the right place to try and influence matters - there simply is no much opportunity for access to the decision makers. The countries and delegates with whom QUNO usually works well, e.g. by providing them with expertise (in Hong Kong in the shape of three experts, whose knowledge is at hand if needed and wanted), are not part of the inner circle. With one exception: India asked right on day one for QUNO's help to set up a meeting with NGOs in order to explain India's position, trying to win over 'civil society' (Minister Nath: "We are all in this together"). It does show the trust that QUNO has earned that India chose it with its request.
The above also shows the correctness of choosing both the topic ('mode 4', despite this being, once again, a topic difficult to explain and make 'popular') and the group of the least developed countries as partners for this area of work: Helping the disadvantaged to have a slightly louder voice, helping them to try and get what they want - not what we may think is the right thing for them (and there are plenty of Friends who think 'mode 4' is bad, another dangerous immigration gimmick to be fought with all means available.
Maybe a ministerial is not the best place to promote this (and one can safely assume that the protesters on the outside, who make no secret of their opinion, won't achieve much more either beyond some colourful headlines), but the choice of concern for QUNO is right.
On the side: One mundane reason for the limited access at a ministerial is the safety concern. When a Fair Trade group tried to present WTO director general Pascal Lamy with a Fairly Traded football, the Hong Kong security personnel was a barrier impossible to penetrate: Afraid of an explosive issue? One wonders, how thorough the security sweep of the BMWs was ...
Martin Kunz serves on the Quaker United Nations Committee-Geneva and is at the Hong Kong WTO Ministerial Conference as a member of the Quaker Office at the United Nations (QUNO) Geneva delegation. Although a member of Germany Yearly Meeting, he lives in London and runs a Fair Trade company.
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