No Deal


Activists from around the world joined hands on the streets and in the corridors of power to protest WTO trade deals they said would harm people and the planet. They just won big.

WTO Hong Kong 2005
WTO Hong Kong 2005. Photo by Chang, Li-Pen

“No deal is better than a bad deal” is a slogan of Our World Is Not For Sale, a worldwide alliance of farmers, environmentalists, and labor and fair trade activists concerned with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and international trade. In a victory for global civil society, “No Deal” is the current winner, thanks in part to the efforts of those dismissed as “anti-globalization protesters” following the Seattle WTO Ministerial meetings in 1999. Less “anti-globalization” than “pro-global justice,” these groups have worked for a decade and more to bring smart, strategic and tireless advocacy as well as effective outside pressures to bear on trade talks and institutional reform.

On July 24, 2006, the WTO's director general, Pascal Lamy, announced a halt to all global trade negotiations under way at the WTO. Despite intense last-minute negotiations in Geneva, fundamental disagreements could not be resolved. The “Doha ‘Development' Round,” launched two years after the Seattle WTO, ostensibly to focus on the needs of the poorest countries, was suspended until further notice.

Recriminations came quickly, with the European Union and the U.S. reproaching each other for not going far enough in opening agricultural markets and cutting subsidies to farming.

WTO protests Cancun 2003
WTO Cancun 2003. Photo

Protecting agricultural interests in the industrialized North was indeed a major contributing factor to the collapse. An equally import factor, despite tremendous political and economic pressures over years of negotiations, was Southern governments' belief that their societies would lose more than they would gain in the Doha Round.

Speaking for his own government but expressing the sentiments of others, India's commerce minister, Kamal Nath, emphasized that trade had to be looked at through the prism of development. “This Round is not about the perpetuation of the structural flaws in global trade, especially in agriculture… This Round is not about negotiating [away] livelihood security and subsistence of hundreds of millions of farmers. This Round is not about preventing the emergence of industries in developing countries. This Round [should be] about opening new markets for developing countries especially in developed countries.” Finding no support on these core development issues, India helped move to suspend negotiations.

Mounting empirical evidence, including data from the United Nations and the World Bank, indicate that hidden costs in the proposed WTO agreements outweigh limited gains for most of the developing world. Studies by think tanks, advocacy groups, and academic researchers conclude that skepticism on the part of India and other developing nations is well founded. The share of exports from emerging countries has grown from 20 percent to nearly 45 percent over the last 35 years. As the balance of economic power shifts, countries such as India, Brazil, and China are more likely to reject a trade deal seen to work against their interests. All the more so if a vibrant civil society is engaged in the fight, exposing to public scrutiny the failings of the process and bringing its own analysis of impacts and alternatives to the fore.

WTO Seattle 1999.
WTO Seattle 1999. Photo by Scott Engelhardt

Close monitoring of the arcana of highly technical negotiations allowed civil society organizations to provide alternative analysis and strategic advice to increasingly receptive delegates from developing countries. NGO-affiliated trade lawyers, economists, and other experts opened offices close to WTO headquarters. These Geneva-based groups, together with broad-based social movements and allies in key capitals, provided data and analysis highlighting the societal and environmental impacts of specific negotiations, counterbalancing analysis produced by the WTO Secretariat or trade delegations from the industrialized North.

Activists and trade campaigners used a variety of tactics to change the story outside the halls of the WTO. Popular education efforts, from global anti-sweatshop organizing to social forums and local teach-ins by labor, helped overcome disinformation from the mass media and presented alternatives to the dominant neoliberal economic model. The development and promotion of fair-trade goods provided a new model for trade. Organizing by directly impacted communities of farmers, fishers and indigenous peoples, and mass mobilizations at WTO Ministerial meetings in Seattle, Cancun, and Hong Kong and at summit meetings of the G-8 kept the general public and policymakers aware of the real-world stakes involved. Taken together, these multifaceted insider/?outsider tactics influenced the debate and the course of negotiations and helped shift, at least for a while, the practice of global economic governance.

Transnational networks such as Our World Is Not For Sale represent but one small part of a broad, massive, and growing global movement. Its most exuberant expression can be seen in the annual gatherings of the World Social Forum and the hundreds of social forums organized at local, national, and regional levels worldwide. This movement's ability to impact the Doha trade negotiations provides one example of how the growing power of individuals and organizations, networked through new communication technologies—and through commitment and compassion—can help shift the terms of debate.

Stopping the Doha Round shows the growing strength of civil society when communities come together to work for a world where people matter more than trade. How these networks and the wider global justice movement in all of its contradictions and complexities evolve will set the course not only for trading relations between nations, but for humanity's ability to create a more equitable and sustainable future.

Mark Randazzo
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