July 22, 2005, Business Standard

Islamabad,18 August 2004: Though cautious about certain agreements under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), speakers at a South Asian regional meeting started in Islamabad on Tuesday, the 17th August, were of the view that globalisation is going to be unstoppable and the WTO agreements need to be negotiated in the interests of the people of South Asia. Developing countries must have their own agenda items for the negotiations.

Speaking at the inaugural session, Dr. Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, the Pakistani Minister for Privatisation said no country has progressed without being part of global stream and globalisation is unstoppable as the basic desire of people is to prosper through trade. “The South Asian region has lost much time. Therefore, we need to do a lot of catching to match with the level of economic development of other regions,” he said while delivering the keynote address. “WTO needs to be better understood that some of the decisions are going to have far reaching impact on the lives of people of this region”, the Minister further emphasised.

The Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Mr. Shiv Shankar Menon in his introductory remarks underlined the importance of regional cooperation in South Asia. He further opined that efforts towards regional cooperation are now getting necessary governmental support as well. In his speech, Pradeep S. Mehta, Secretary General of CUTS International highlighted the specific objectives of the meeting being held as part of the SACSNITI (South Asian Civil Society Network on International Trade Issues) project with the support of the International Development Research Centre of Canada. The meeting titled “WTO Post-Cancun Developments: Options for South Asia” is jointly organised by CUTS International, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, Oxfam GB in Pakistan and South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment. The SACSNITI, which was launched three years back, is a unique partnership between research organisations and advocacy groups in South Asian region.

The technical session on “Multilateral Trading System: Post-Cancún Scenario and the Future” was chaired by Mr. Qasim Niaz, Joint secretary, Ministry of Commerce, Government of Pakistan. Talking in this session Mr. Rashid Kaukab of South Centre, Geneva identified the main features and trends related to the WTO. He compared the establishment of WTO to the present scenario. Listing various comparative advantages of the WTO, he said that it provides legitimacy and credibility as three-fourth of its members are from developing countries. Concluding his presentation he argued that it is safe to predict that the WTO will continue to remain an important and relevant body but not the only form to conduct trade among countries. However, our goal should remain the development of developing countries, which could be achieved by strengthening South-South relationship and shaping, mobilising and channelising public opinion. Civil society and media had an important role to play, he added.

Mr. H. A. C. Prasad, Economic Advisor of Ministry of Commerce, Government of India presented his analysis of WTO’s July Decision. According to him, these negotiations were a step forward after the Cancún ministerial. He said that developing countries must find ways for better utilisation of the G-20 alliance.

Mr. Poshraj Pandey from Nepal was of the view that if developing countries can act jointly, the outcome could be in their interest. The chances of better negotiations will only be possible if developing countries continue to be part of larger negotiations. Solution lies in joint efforts on behalf of research and advocacy groups to assist governments in preparing negotiating agenda.

Dr. Nagesh Kumar, Director General of Research and Information System for Non-aligned and other Developing Countries (RIS), India, said 1990s was a decade of regionalism rather than a trend of globalisation. As a result of the formation of regional trading arrangements (RTAs), 60 percent of the world trade is done on preferential basis. Keeping this in view if a country is not part of any RTA, then its exports are prone to be disadvantageous. Now there is a movement in developed world to stop developing countries from forming such blocs. Developing countries should not be defensive about RTAs. They are building blocs to get into the multilateral system. The other aspect, which Kumar highlighted, was that RTA not only helps create trade but also expand the scope of investment.

Ms. Huma Fakhar of Pakistan raised certain important questions as how to negotiate the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA). She was of the view that rest of the world is far ahead than South Asia in terms of building regional blocs. She called for more research to deal with regional trade issues and how to get benefit from regional trade.

Mr. Ratnakar Adhikari, Executive Director of South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment said that nothing is happening in terms of transfer of technical assistance to least developed countries (LDCs) within SAFTA in order to catch up with other countries in the region. He said the South Asian countries need to show seriousness towards regional cooperation, particularly in trade.

Dr. Abid Suleri of Oxfam GB in Pakistan called for a mechanism among the South Asian countries to achieve a win-win situation and argued that RTAs is one of the ways to achieve this goal. He urged the need to take media along to create enabling environment to influence policy and decision-making in South Asian countries.

Mr. S. Narayanan, Former Ambassador of India to the WTO said that the South needed to put its own house in order. We should not think about giving into multilateral trade agreements and any pressure in this regard. He said when a country is representing a group of countries at a global forum it should do it in the best interests of countries involved and in a transparent manner.