WTO Public Forum. To harness or to unleash, that is the question

October 5, 2007

Every year since 2001, the WTO hosts a two-day Public Forum at its headquarters in Geneva. This year about 1800 delegates from all over the world are attending an impressive number of seminars organized by “civil society” itself within the premises of the WTO. The public is a ragbag of the most varied interest groups. One meets hippie-types with deep-environmental agendas, students with future jobs in minds, academics selling their ideas, and all sorts of business lobbyists in suit-and-tie that are here to network hard. This year’s topic is “How can the WTO help Harness Globalization?”

The opening plenary session  on Thursday morning reflected the very ambiguous position the WTO has driven itself into. I was wondering whether it was still the guardian of a liberal economic world order or drifting towards becoming a development agency? The Secretary General Pascal Lamy displayed – in small – his big political skills. In his opening address, there was mainly talk of “Civil Society” Contributing, Aid-for-Trade, TRIPS, the-WTO and-the-Environment, Fisheries subsidies, Sustainable development, etc. Somewhere he does remind us that the core mission of the WTO is trade liberalisation – oh yeah, really? Almost forgot!

Although Lamy spoke of “civil society” in general his speech was addressed to the vociferous half of civil society that contests globalisation and free global markets. Lamy forgot – deliberately? – that the audience was also made up of people strongly in favour of “opening markets”. Fisheries issues are important, of course. And the problem of overfishing a question of lack of markets and too much subsidies. But the real bread and butter issues – opening markets further – are just stuck in the rut of the stalled “Doha Development” Round.

Lamy was in fact very clever in his choice of panel. He played the perfect “politically correct” game. He chose two women speakers – ah, yeah, gender equality: Tarja Halonen, President of Finland, and Olubanke King-Akerle, Foreign Minister of Liberia. One from a developed country, one from a Least Developed Country. One blond, the other black in traditional costume. Then he chose a man – a Singaporean diplomat-turned academic Kishore Mahbubani. Coloured, as opposed to Lamy’s white maleness. And what did the left-leaning-climate-change-obsessed-worker-right-policy-space-fanatics targeted in Lamy’s opening speech get served? Nothing to please them. Hard business talk. Ms Halonen, as good European, was the most “mainstreamy” speaker. Talking too of worker rights, fair deals, etc. But broadly supportive of the WTO and globalisation. Ms King-Akerle? Of course gender equality and fair and balanced trade deals. But the heart of her long, detailed and lively speech as minister of a postwar country not yet member of the WTO was: market access, business opportunities to raise income. Survival, real life. A “trade, quick!”- of sorts. Not, as one panel only peopled with Northern organisations (see programme) put it: “Slow Trade”.

The high point of the plenary session was the excellent speech of Mahbubani. Core message: contrary to what the theme of the WTO public forum indicates, one should not “harness” globalisation. The question should be: how to “unleash” globalisation! OK, he is Singaporean…. Yet Mahbubani’s speech is full of facts, figures and stories of how integration into the world economy – i.e. globalisation via economic liberalisation – lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, namely in Asia. High live free markets and related access to mobile phones, TV sets, house and home, so says he. He apologized for his “naïve enthusiasm” for globalisation, but his speech was a reminder of hard, politically incorrect facts. 

Outside the conference room after the plenary session, a lady, hippie-style-deep-environmentalist-fitting-the-cliché, came to me (Why Me?) and said something along the lines of “with globalisation one forgets about the environment! Millions more can now pollute and send gases into the atmosphere!” I didn’t want to provoke her and kept my thoughts for myself: So you want to keep all those millions in poverty? Environmental problems need to and can be tackled. But complaining about millions of people now polluting because they are finally having a decent life I did think scandalous after having heard the speeches of the Liberian and Singaporean. Some people just never learn.

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