Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 349 | Agosto 2010



A Nicaraguan in the World Trade Organization

This, in broad brushstrokes, is an account of my time in the WTO. They capture certain development practices in one of the world’s globalized capitals. They show the belly of this beast, in the parts I was able to enter...

Gloria María Carrión Fonseca

Three years ago a plane took me from the labyrinthine streets of Managua and landed me in Geneva, a multicultural, conservative city protected by mountains. Along with Washington, Brussels and New York, Geneva is a “Mecca” of the institutional weave that sustains international development. What does one breathe in the corridors and corners of the international organizations? How do the mechanisms of power filter into them? And even more importantly: How can the balance be reversed?

International development, like all professional arenas, has its own myths, its own language and an institutional culture that’s not always open to change. Myth has it that in 1944 men in black suits and ties met in Bretton Woods, United States, to discuss the planet’s political and economic future. That meeting gave birth to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), predecessor of the World Trade Organization (WTO), emerged later, in 1945, from an agreement reached in Havana. The WTO came into being in 1994 at the end of the long and controversial Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations. Since then neoliberal economists and politicians have paid homage to a faith without altars or parishes, a promised land that ensures that free trade will eradicate poverty and promote development.

I was met by a mural:
“The dignity of labor”

The small and grayish WTO building sits overlooking Lake Geneva. In contrast to the United Nations building, which is spacious and stately, the WTO building would pass unnoticed as just another institution in the Geneva urban geography if it wasn’t that these four walls have seen massive worldwide protests and incendiary banners. As the Austrian philosopher Karl Polanyi warned us: “As capitalism expands so also society resists the changes that threaten its survival.”

I entered the building on a cloudy day, much the same color as the monochrome world of black, gray and white tailored suits of the negotiators who invaded the corridors and halls. During a recess in one of the sessions, I decided to explore the first floor. I climbed a flight of steps and was met by a mural commissioned in the early 1930s by the International Labor Organization, headquartered in the building at the time. Its creator, Maurice Denis, titled it “The Dignity of Labor.”

Given this paradox, I was suddenly invaded by images of Nemagon-poisoned Nicaraguan men and women who have squatted in a field of tents of black plastic bags in front of Nicaragua’s National Assembly without anyone listening to their demands for justice. I relived the news of Lee Kyung Hae, a Korean farmer who, overwhelmed by enormous debt due to the competition from subsidized agricultural products and the social costs of hasty trade liberalization, killed himself in front of the hotel where WTO representatives were negotiating.

You need to bring a shield

It’s important to bring a shield when you enter the entrails of the wolf. Power is a spiral that sweeps up everything: mandates, public policies, national and individual priorities. All that ends up in the garbage if the shield can’t withstand the onslaught of power, so it has to be well woven; threaded with many fibers of integrity, social commitment and knowledge.

I was in Geneva to work in the Nicaraguan Mission to the WTO. And, although I knew some of the weapons and chameleon-like skills of power, I asked myself if my shield was strong enough to protect me as Medusa’s head protected Athena. One thing was certain: I would need to stay very alert not to risk being turned to stone.

Analyses that are absolute truths

Knowledge is undoubtedly one of the best weapons of the powerful…and also of the powerless. In the hands of the powerful, technical knowledge becomes exclusive. Euphemisms and complexities emerge. Trade issues, simple at the start, soon become inaccessible and only decipherable with the help of a magnifying glass. Knowledge, used thus, erects barriers, like a dam that only releases water to the chosen few. But in the hands of the powerless, knowledge can become a tool of resistance.

I soon discovered that WTO negotiations are frequently influenced by studies and analyses presented by institutions who share a fervent belief in the tenets of free trade. The World Bank, the IMF, regional banks like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the WTO itself thus acquire structural power during negotiations, because their vision of the economy and development prevails and their arguments, statistics and rationales are never questioned. The negotiators generally accept their analyses as absolute truths.

I found myself in a man’s world

I confirmed something else I knew already: the world of trade negotiators is a man’s world. The majority of the ambassadors and negotiators are masculine, as are the mercantilist visions governing the discussions. Apart from Nicaragua, few diplomatic missions depend for represen¬tation on the strengths and minds of women. As part of this minority, I can vouch for how a reduced vision of the world—the strongest will always get their way—reigns in trade negotiations, as does a primary objective: the extraction, accumulation and control of wealth. It’s very important therefore that one country’s production always be “better” than another’s and better yet if one manages to besiege, buy out or take over the other—as in the case of Iraq.

There are few cracks through which social and environmental topics, generally considered “soft” issues, can enter. Most negotiators refuse to consider in any effective way the implications of the intrinsic links that exist between economy, environment and society. They prefer instead to analyze the economy with clinical detachment, as if it were an entity suspended over our heads with very little if any social or environmental impact on our lives.

The corporations rule here

The powerful are everywhere, especially in the world capitals, pulling the political and economic strings from their corporations. International trade moves billions of dollars and the corporations do most of the moving. They control production, research, marketing and trade in many of the products exchanged at world level. Sometimes they control one or several links in the value chain; in other cases, the whole chain.

The giant corporations also dictate the rules of the WTO’s political economic game. Negotiators are only the tip of the iceberg. During the Uruguay Round, 12 corporations wrote the chapter on intellectual property at the request of the US government, despite the fact that it showed a clear conflict of interest as the proposed patents protected the pharmaceutical, technical and agricultural products that these same 12 corporations export to the whole world.

In the Uruguay Round, the price to be paid for including agriculture in the negotiations was—and this is no joke—acceptance by the developing countries of the chapter on intellectual property that opened the possibility of patenting technology, knowledge, productive processes and seeds for the first time. The production and importation of generic drugs was also restricted to events threatening public health, as defined by these same 12 protagonists.

An idea repeated many times can, dangerously, become a truth. The champions of intellectual property know this very well. They argue that the protection of knowledge is essential to promote technological research and development. It is blasphemy to question whether there’s a causal link between technological development and the awarding of patents, or whether awarding a patent would generate a negative incentive in the dynamic and competitive research world, since a patent is basically a monopoly granted to a company for a certain period of time—20 years generally and more in the case of regional agreements such as CAFTA-DR, the US trade agreement with the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. Equally, the contradiction between a patent’s monopoly and the intrinsic concept of free trade seems to bother nobody.

A kingdom of impunity
with threats and without criticism

WTO agreements aren’t made in institutional settings but rather in the gray area of semi-formality. And, while WTO committee meetings are important from the standpoint of international trade administration, the major agreements are made outside of all these meeting rooms: in bars and restaurants and in the trade offices of the world’s big capital cities.

The malleability of this institutionality can also be seen in the compliance with only those norms that benefit the powerful. The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body is a case in point. This forum was created to prevent abuses of power and possible unilateral action. Practice, however, shows that a country that is a relevant player in the international economic and political arena can violate the resolutions of the Dispute Settlement Body with impunity. In theory, the affected country—especially if it’s an underdeveloped country—has the power to retaliate, but few impoverished countries dare to do so given the real politik governing the world, as they consider the political cost too great.

When the powerful feel under attack, they threaten. If the criticism is aimed at the incongruence between discourse and practice, the threat could be even more pointed. Threats proliferated when Nicaragua questioned the failure of the United States to comply with an old ruling that established that a Caribbean country should be compensated if its trademark rights for a product of interest to the US are not recognized. “What should I tell Washington?” the US negotiator chided me at the end of the session. “About what?” I asked him. “About the fact that since you, young lady, came onto this committee, Nicaragua’s position has become more critical of the United States.” “Whatever you want,” I answered. “You can tell Washington whatever you like.”

Some with many and
others with only three

Most of the delegations of the developing countries and the poorest countries have only one or two members to attend to an overwhelming diversity of WTO meetings. The developed countries’ delegations, on the other hand, enjoy staffs highly trained in the technicalities of trade. On just one negotiation committee, like agriculture, these countries are represented by 10 or 20 negotiators at a time. We had just three in our delegation and attended about 20 bodies: committees, subcommittees, coalitions and special negotiation groups, in addition to informal meetings. A poor country’s negotiator runs from one committee to another, their eyes showing hours of missed sleep. Inequality has indeed many faces.

We learned from the round

The negotiators from impoverished countries learned a lot from the Uruguay Round of Negotiations. According to them, they had never before negotiated the way they did during that famous Round. And many of the representatives heading these delegations had no or very little technical knowledge about trade negotiations; for the majority it was virgin territory.

On seeing that the Uruguay Round didn’t help level the power in trade relations, but even in some cases deepened distortions like the agricultural subsidies permitted in the North, many negotiators reconsidered their strategies. It wasn’t for nothing that the Doha Round of Negotiations has been stalled and hampered not only by the complexity of the mandate, in which nothing is agreed until consensus is reached on all issues, but also because of poor countries’ opposition to accepting agreements made behind closed doors.

In this context, I verified more than once that even the weakest on the world scene can influence the balance of power. It’s real: poor countries can influence negotiation processes to some degree. The secret is for them to make their own analyses, adopt a language that supports their arguments and act in accordance with their country’s development objectives. The work of each person present in the negotiation forums is also fundamental in the WTO. Given that the negotiations are engaged in by individuals, the security and knowledge a negotiator projects in the formal and informal arenas are essential.

A victory for Nicaragua and what it showed me

I learned a lot from one case I worked on. The interests of countries like Nicaragua weren’t being clearly reflected in one of the negotiation texts we were writing for the Agriculture Committee, led at that time by Crawford Falconer, New Zealand’s ambassador. Along with other countries, Nicaragua took on the task of analyzing the negotiation document, paragraph by paragraph, and of showing, in numbers, that the protection the European Union, the United States and Japan sought to obtain for their “sensitive” products like meat, dairy, maize, rice, among others, denied most of our national exports access to the market of those countries. Therefore, Nicaragua had nothing to gain from the agreement, particularly at that time, and much to lose.

Nicaragua then went to the European, US and Japanese delegations to show them our figures and make clear that Nicaragua would not sign the agreement until the negotiations reflect our country’s development priorities. Our delegation also presented its study to the WTO’s Agriculture Division and indicated that Nicaragua would even be prepared to use the right of veto given to each country in the WTO.

More voices joined that of Nicaragua and the negotiation document had to be revised. Before it went public, our delegation received a call from the Agriculture Division. The director general of the WTO, Pascal Lamy wanted us to know that they were very interested in hearing Nicaragua’s reaction to the new document. The interests of countries like Nicaragua had been clearly set out in it. More than satisfied, we celebrated that victory.

During my time in the Nicaraguan Mission I was able, along with my colleagues, to take the lead in and influence other similar cases. Power isn’t exclusively in the hands of the powerful. The poor can also exercise their quota of it and how they do so depends on the knowledge, assertiveness and ethics with which they act in the belly of the wolf.

Brazil, India, China:
Countries to be reckoned with

The political economic world is changing dramatically. “Emerging” countries like India, China and Brazil are ever more necessary to reach world consensus on issues like trade and climate change. The European, US and Japanese negotiators can’t make sustainable agreements without them.

I met some of the negotiators from these three countries. I was especially captivated by the Indian ambassador’s commitment to development and to the poorest countries, not only in speeches but in practice. I admired the Brazilian officials’ mastery and diplomatic skills. And I was impressed by the Chinese officials’ capacity for observation, reflection and focused action in the interests of their country’s development.

In 2009, the WTO was on the brink of securing the Doha agreement, but India firmly rejected the proposed agricultural agreement because it didn’t include an important clause protecting its farmers. Negotiations were suspended indefinitely. WTO agreements are now also discussed in Beijing, New Delhi and Brasilia. These countries aren’t only energizing the global economy with their rapid economic growth; they’re changing the political rules of trade… although sustainable changes almost always take place slowly.

Divide and conquer:
The case of bananas

The old concept of “divide and conquer,” introduced by the English during their colonial expansionism, is still alive and well. Perhaps the most notable example of this is that of bananas. The “saga” of the banana has been on the table for discussion since the inception of GATT. In its modern version, the European Union has put into effect a controversial tax on banana imports from Latin America to benefit their former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP). The European Union argues that Latin America is sufficiently competitive to export to Europe despite this tariff barrier. Many Latin American countries think differently.

The truth is that US corporations—Chiquita, Dole and others—control banana production in many Latin American countries. The conflict between the United States and Europe for the production, marketing and consumption of bananas merely takes place in African and Latin American settings.

Discussions between ACP countries and Latin America for preferential access to the European market for their respective banana exports are difficult and are fomenting an important split in the developing countries’ coalitions, which aren’t formed along regional lines.

This incision in the developing countries’ political blocs is key to creating a smoke screen through which other more important issues pass unnoticed: agricultural subsidies and the creation of quotas for access to the developed countries’ markets in place of a real and effective opening. But this smoke screen also prevents Europe and the United States from winning allies in other negotiation areas of structural interest to them.

Where should we direct our energies?

This division also detracts from the developing countries’ energies and negotiating capacities, which could be focused on the defense of other more important products for the promotion of value added such as those of the agro-industry and services. For many, it’s a given that sustainable development won’t come from the export of bananas, especially as current production processes for this fruit represent dramatic social and environmental costs worldwide.

While coalitions of the developing countries in the WTO have been effective in proposing and defending issues like food security and rural development as part of the opening of global agricultural trade, they’re also vulnerable to special interests and influences, in some cases skewed by the developed countries.

In this context, only coalitions of countries prepared to sacrifice some special interests in favor of common interests so as to obtain sustainable development objectives can effectively deal with the pressures of a trade negotiation process. Many organizations acting within the scope and work of the WTO have focused their efforts in this direction, albeit with mixed results.

Here management matters more
than the search for alternatives

Geneva is filled with nongovernmental organizations of all sizes. Many monitor and inform on the work of the WTO. Others generate informative notes and studies that in some cases are later used by the developing countries as input in the negotiations. These studies—unlike those of the World Bank and IMF—are presented outside of formal WTO meetings. While some success stories show how the analysis of food security and intellectual property by some of these organizations has been instrumental in forging some developing countries’ negotiating positions, there are also practices that contradict the commitment to development, the purpose for which these organizations were born.

Increasingly, these NGOs have been taken over by a focus to “corporativize” the work they do, which consists of giving higher priority to management and to marketing the practice of development rather than to analysis committed to social change and the search for possible structural solutions. Similarly, the emergence of consultancies that, in general, are outsourced to international “experts,” also mostly men, has undermined the promotion and creation of think tanks and serious analysis, relegating the often well-trained NGO staff to a role of mechanically administering their projects.

What happened to critical thinking?

The rich countries’ development agencies have their share of responsibility in this. The funding these agencies give to NGOs working on trade issues is tied to submitting extensive and numerous execution and evaluation reports.

While monitoring the impact of the work being carried out is essential for these organizations to effectively direct funding, ensure accountability and guide strategic planning, the diverse, repetitive reports required undermine the time their staffs have available to concentrate on in-depth issues and often unnecessarily delays projects being put into action.

Also, most of the funding obtained is generally applied to covering the organizations’ high administrative costs in the developed countries, leaving only a small part of it for implementing the projects in those countries.

Critical thinking in these organizations has declined considerably. Institutions that question today’s prevalent development model and international trade regime from a structural perspective are few. There are also very few that propose alternative visions to achieve inclusive global development. There is now a kind of consensus around the idea that less structural questioning will lead to more viable changes, given that the institutions only accept incremental transformations.

They use jargon

Although this idea, especially the part about incremental changes, can lead to an interesting debate concerning the processes of institutional transformation, there’s also the danger that by only superficially questioning the work of institutions like the WTO, the organizations concerned end up legitimizing, for example, WTO consulting processes with civil society, which are hardly representative, transparent or democratic.

A technicality prevails in the language used in these organizations’ studies and publications that greatly hinders comprehension of the information in countries where many foreign trade ministries don’t have large trained staff that can digest and systematize the information resulting from these analyses. This information becomes not only inaccessible to its target public but is concentrated in groups, generally only found in developed countries, that are “in the know” and understand this jargon. Knowledge that’s supposed to be shared with poor countries therefore ends up in the intimacy of the North’s circles of knowledge.

We can reverse the
balance of power

To reverse the balance of power and eliminate inequalities within major international institutions like the WTO, and others with a smaller radius of action but no less important because of it, it’s essential to understand that these bodies aren’t neutral. Political-economic games are played both within and outside of them that are crucial in today’s world and its more than six billion inhabitants. This is why decisions made in these forums should result from a real consensus and not from an imposition.

It’s imperative to rescue and foster critical thinking on a global level. A society with individuals who can think outside the box is a society with a future. Critical thinking injects analysis, dynamism, autonomy and innovation, which are vital aspects for the promotion of structural change and the search for inclusive solutions. Without critical thinking we’re at the mercy of the unchecked power of special interests, of messianic leaders and of “unquestionable” beliefs such as those promoted by, among others, the advocates of economic neoliberalism.

Finally, it’s necessary to democratize information and remove the jargon whose sole result is to widen the divide between the actors at the base and the decision makers and promoters of public policies on high. It’s vital that words be accessible and close in order to stimulate real social, economic, political and environmental change because, as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire put it: “True words are an unbreakable bond between action and reflection.”

The year I lived with the wolf

The intense year I spent in the Nicaraguan Mission to the WTO allowed me to immerse myself in the behind-the-scenes world of international trade and globalization without losing my way. I felt in my own body the icy breath of the wolf and proved that, though it isn’t always easy, our shield can protect us from its sharp fangs.

I also discovered that, however limited the arena may be, it is possible to have a positive impact when the social, economic and environmental interests of our country are engraved on our soul, as if they were our own skin. It’s possible, and will always be possible, to derail and change the balance of power, because there’s no inequality that cannot be questioned, overcome, banished.

I arrived at the WTO on a cloudy day and left on one suddenly filled with the reds, lilacs and yellows of fall. That morning, the lake, calm and crystalline, seemed as satisfied as I was about the time we’d spent together. With my briefcase of life enriched with these new experiences, I left the WTO building and crossed the threshold of its iron gate with the certainty that a more human world is always stepping on the wolf’s tail.

Gloria Carrión is an expert on development and the environment.

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