The fifth ministerial of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) failed and the Indian media was quick enough to lap it up as a huge success for India and the developing world. Some of the leading dailies had dramatic headlines on 16 September:
“Cancun’s fall: the rich hardsell, poor don’t buy” – Indian Express
“India gains at Cancun” – The Times of India
“Cancun meet collapses after standoff” – The Hindu
The stories that followed eloquently and proudly informed readers of how India had bravely warded off the unfair and unequal trade order being imposed on the world and how it played a leading role in protecting the interests of millions of farmers and poor people from developing countries. “India Inc. hails Jaitley”, read another headline, applauding the Union Minister for Commerce Arun Jaitley for successfully leading the fight against the vested economic and political interests of the developed world. “The fact that we brought the concerns of developing countries to the centre stage reflects the success of Cancun”, Jaitley is reported to have said at the conclusion of the talks.
Centre stage and success? One had all along been led to believe, with a vehemence that brooked no misgiving, that the whole purpose of trade liberalisation and the WTO was always to benefit the developing world. Now one is expected to believe that these concerns were not even in the picture in the first place, and that the entire struggle is to get them to the centre stage, and that ‘success’ lies in actually achieving this objective. It is interesting to look at the semantics of the media take on the talks—the talks failed? Or did they succeed? If they failed, did India gain? If India gained, did the talks fail? How could they fail? If India gained because the talks failed, who actually failed? Who lost? If nobody lost, how did the talks fail? If everybody lost, why the celebration? If failure is success, why were the talks held in the first place? And who wanted them? Who continues to want them?
For the last decade the political elite and economic experts of the country have lost no opportunity to push the TINA (there is no alternative) factor vis-à-vis the WTO—in its success is salvation for the poor and the solution to the poverty of this country and that this was the route to becoming a ‘developed’ country. Also, that the WTO is the only gateway to larger international markets to improve trade and that increasing trade was the only way of improving our own lives and lifestyles—even if this required the sacrifice of a large part of individual economic sovereignty for the country. Those who disregarded the ‘bounties’ of unfettered international trade had vested interests in opposing the WTO or keeping national markets closed. These were ‘anti-nationals’ who opposed development and did not understand the needs and desires of the people of the country. The world was becoming a village and staying out of it was bad economics. If all that the political and economic bosses have tried hard to convince the people of was indeed true, what happened now? Why the celebrations?
There is now convincing proof that liberalisation and opening up of the markets is destroying the livelihoods of millions of third world farmers. It is penury and starvation, not the promised wealth and prosperity that is coming their way. But, has the media learnt to look deeper than simply report on farmer suicides and industrial layoffs? One day before the talks in Cancun collapsed, an ‘expert’ explained in his weekly column in an Indian national daily as to why “imports are better than exports”. But he could do no more than to simply assert that ‘exports are a bad thing and imports are a good thing’ and that this was actually good for the poor. But the fact is there are still some die-hard believers who cannot bring themselves to abandon the faith. A day after the talks failed, an article in a national daily explained that too much (unnecessary) focus was being laid on the protectionism in the rich countries. “The Cancun collapse”, the author argued, “was in no small measure due to the unwillingness of developing countries to make credible market-open concessions to match those they demanded from the rich countries”. Efforts were needed, he concluded, to strengthen the ability of leaders in developing countries to sell liberalisation to their domestic constituencies. Clearly the skewed ‘handouts’ after a decade of this process and the accompanying statistics have failed to raise a consideration on the part of ‘experts’ that something is not right—the emperor may be naked, but so what? Long live the emperor! For them, and minister Jaitley must have surely received a good dressing down from them when he returned, liberalisation has to be ‘sold’. Markets have to be opened, whatever the cost and whosoever may have to pay for it.
The best must be saved for the last— and as always, the most self-serving opinion comes from the Economist, the mantra-provider for the world’s well-heeled. Its special report, titled ‘WTO under fire’ (20 September), explains that one of the three reasons for the failure of the talks in Cancun was the WTO itself. “Finally”, says the weekly, “the blame belongs to the WTO’s own decision-making procedures, or rather the lack of them…Its predecessor, the old GATT system …was run by rich countries. Poor countries had little power, but also few responsibilities. The WTO, by contrast, is a democratic organisation that works by consensus, but with no formal procedures to get there. Any one of the organisation’s 148 members can hold up any aspect of any negotiation. Efforts to create smaller informal groups are decried as ‘non-transparent’ by those left out….The worst problem, though, is that the WTO’s requirement for consensus makes it virtually impossible for it to be reformed”. This, not surprisingly, is the kind of view held by the US and European Union (EU) trade representatives as well.
The irony of the situation would be hilarious if actually it was not this tragic. The Economist wants the WTO reformed and if this means that it loses its apparently democratic and transparent nature and consensus mode of decision-making, so be it. Large portions of the developing world fought for the failure of Cancun because they thought the way the WTO talks were headed, was unfair. If a democratic and consensus-based system itself was found to be unreasonable and unfair, it is amazing that the Economist and others can believe and say what they actually do. And if, indeed, the Economist’s wishes were to come true, will the media in the developing world once again simply echo the sentiments of this, their market-leader.