December 13-19, 2005, The Monitor
Dehradun, India

What could a recovering HIV/Aids patient admitted at Kabale Hospital and a half-naked, emaciated woman standing with a loaded bowl at a relief distribution point in an Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camp in Gulu, have in common? One would say, both are overwhelmed by the predicament they are faced with and require help from outside.

Also, both are consumers: the latter is a consumer of aid (mainly from the USA) and the former is a healthcare consumer fighting for dear life with help of free life-sustaining anti-retroviral (ARV) therapy accessed through a state-funded (but donor supported!) distribution programme.

And well as the above observations are correct, we may be looking at symptoms. The root cause remains concealed from ordinary eyes. It is an apparent paradox: the two people could be pawns or accidental beneficiaries in a skewed global trading system under the aegis of the Word Trade Organisation (WTO).

The system continues to lock out poor countries from partaking benefits that their rich counterparts enjoy.

With the sixth meeting of the highest decision-making body in the WTO, the Ministerial Conference, starting today in Hong Kong, China, its time to take stock of where we stand in the global trading system.

Like the Cancun (Mexico) Ministerial meeting, the Hong Kong summit is already widely seen as a likely flop.

For a decade now, grim-faced developing countries have waited to smile. The emotional feeling has been motivated by expectations that efforts aimed at regulating world trade, under the WTO, would enable poor countries to reap from a rules-based trading system. Their dreams are yet to turn into reality.

According to the Draft Ministerial Text (DMT), the beef is mainly around trade liberalisation – agriculture and non-agricultural products. Other issues include; trade facilitation, special and differential treatment (a kind of affirmative action to poor countries), trade and environment, Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights (TRIPS) and public health.

However, in a pre-conference analysis, renowned consumer activists and WTO critics, Pradeep S. Mehta and Pranav Kumar, maintain that progress on all these issues is highly dependent upon substantial movement on the core issues of trade liberalisation, particularly agriculture.

The main additional issues at Hong Kong will include trade and aid for trade.

But let us see how the victims at Kabale and Gulu fit into the picture. First, availability of free ARVs came about after immense pressure from an increasingly powerful civil society lobby interspersed with a few feeble public sector voices from poor countries.

The picketing of civil society melted the hitherto strong resistance against relaxing the global intellectual property (IP) regime through lacing it with a humanitarian appeal. They discussed figures reflecting that every year, millions of poor people die of malaria, Aids, TB, diarrhoea among other ailments, for lack of basic drugs.
This state of affairs stood to get worse if the WTO TRIPS Agreement came into force around the world.

Universal compliance with TRIPS meant that cheap generic drugs would disappear from drugstore shelves and community health facilities like the one at Kabale. This appeared to pierce the hearts of the rich countries.

Accordingly, during the Doha Round of the WTO trade negotiations, poor countries were given a lifeline: compliance with TRIPS was pushed up to 2016 (in case of pharmaceuticals). But given a second look, it was a convenient trade-off; to contain noise and attention from the more contentious negotiations on agriculture trade, the broad area under which we shall later examine the woman from the IDP in Gulu.

International trade data suggests that the multi-billion dollar global pharmaceuticals industry can at most get a tiny scratch when the status quo prevailed for a while. Africa’s share in the pharmaceuticals market is an insignificant 1 percent; even when the other developing countries are considered (minus India, china and Brazil), the figures remain in single digit.

And how does the IDP fit into the picture of global trade? International aid programmes, it is widely observed, are a conduit for off-loading surplus production from agricultural giants, the USA and the EU. Highly subsidised, yet employing a tiny fraction, the developed country agricultural steamroller continues to stifle poor countries’ efforts to compete favourably and access markets. This costs jobs, threatens food security, sovereignty and upsets prudential fiscal planning.

Of course Pascal Lamy’s WTO was not even established when the 20-year civil war in northern Uganda started. Neither is the organisation and the system it nourishes directly behind the high HIV/Aids infection rates in poor developing countries, including Uganda.

But let us peer a little further. If the global pharmaceutical industry was not motivated by the huge profits partly buttressed by the prevailing patent regime, perhaps several manufacturers could have been humane enough and dedicated a substantial part of their research and development budgets to finding a cure for malaria, HIV/Aids and the other ‘diseases of the poor.’

Moved by pictures depicting malnutrition and despondency in Africa as is often relayed on network TV channels, the rich countries would, through their respective agricultural policies, protect the livelihood of over 70 percent of the wretched people in poor countries who entirely depend on agriculture. That has been the long held story.

Yet, against the above common wisdom, the World Food Programme last week threw a spanner in the works: the global food aid agency suggested that food aid consumers and poor farmers are simply being used as pawns by poor countries to drum up reforms that would win them badly needed concessions from their developed counterparts.

The agency said the global humanitarian food aid system and trade are two separate things and should not be fused during the negotiations.

With this ammunition, the developed world should step to the new battlefront with fresh blood. Like renowned Kenyan activist Oduor Ongwen said recently, international trade is like war; one has to fight to retain ground, while making efforts to capture some more.

I should add that in this perpetual war, the consumer could conveniently be taken as prisoner of war, or might suffer the fate of the grass (denoted in a common cliché), depending on what side he/she is found whenever fresh battles breakout.

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