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Manisha Singh Headshot

Letting Sleeping Giants Lie...

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The coming months will be a time for movement forward on many global goals. In September, the Millennium Development Summit in the midst of the United Nations General Assembly will evaluate progress on the Millennium Development Goals. There are continuing high hopes that the G-20, meeting in November, will manage to get the world's economy back on track. Woven within all of these high level meetings is also hope that the fulfillment of these goals will lead to reduction and ultimately alleviation of extreme poverty as well.

Not showing any signs of life, however, is the World Trade Organization--a meeting of global players which, if revived, could have significant impact on the ambitions of reducing global poverty. Mired in international and domestic political difficulties, the WTO's Doha Development Agenda languishes. Even when economic times are good, it is easy to blame "globalization" for domestic unemployment. When times are tough, it is even easier to do so. In addition, the politics of trade can certainly obscure what Doha was designed to do.

Interestingly, the Doha Ministerial Declaration, adopted in November 2001, states in the first paragraph that the parties "are determined, particularly in light of the global economic slowdown to maintain the process of reform and liberalization of trade policies, thus ensuring that the system plays its full part in promoting recovery, growth and development." This sentiment is of course, as true today in 2010, as it was then. We have not made significant progress in overall global trade liberalization and certainly not enough in global poverty reduction. And pulling the world economy up from its plunge has been more difficult now also. The WTO member states further observed in 2001 that most members are developing countries and recognized the need for all portions of the world population to benefit from trade liberalization. Alleviation of poverty has been a consistent and significant goal of Doha.

Its different parts are all geared individually towards contributing to poverty reduction goals. In general, there has been increased focused on technical assistance and capacity building so that developing nations may more fully take part. More specifically, in 2005, at the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference, there was a component adopted called "Aid for Trade" which was designed specifically to build capacity. This was as a result of the basic recognition that many developing, and in particular, least developed countries, are not fully able to benefit from a tariff free trading system. It is critical that nascent industries and entrepreneurs have or develop the ability to take advantage of a global system that is being established so that member states at all levels can take advantage. Aid for Trade is intended to enable this and provide the resources needed by third world enterprise. As a follow up to its inception, there was a task force established in 2006 to monitor and provide recommendations on the initiative.

It is, at least, one of the parts of the WTO which is at least showing some signs of life. At the end of last year, there was an extensive Aid for Trade Work Program created for the years 2010-11. Among its strengths are calls for focus on actual implementation of strategies, and evaluation and monitoring as well as tracking the impact of designated programs and strategies. Its weaknesses are those endemic to the aid world: soliciting pledges for more money and using terms like "greater country ownership." Let's move the monitoring and tracking to the top of the program, and then later see what additional monies might be needed. If taken seriously in perception and implementation, capacity building leading to actual arms-length trading ability will give a nation economic independence.

Trade has been turned into one of the terms used in political jockeying leading to a disregard for what it could mean in leveling the playing field worldwide. Hopefully the latter was partly the impetus for President Obama's favorable nod to the Free Trade Agreement with Korea, which is another trade pact lying in wait. With the renewed interest, the stated intent was to be able to move forward by the time the President attends the G-20 in Seoul in November. The hindrances toward progress are political, rather than technical, and therefore can be solved with political will. The same can be said for the WTO and its important Aid for Trade component.

Let's hope that in November, at the G-20, we'll have a confluence of positive economic events including an awakened WTO creating another strong tool towards our global goals of benefits for all parts of societies, and ultimately, the elimination of poverty.