Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

"The Time They Are A-Changin'": Some Preliminary Thoughts on Developing Countries, NGOs and the Reform of the WTO

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

"The Time They Are A-Changin'": Some Preliminary Thoughts on Developing Countries, NGOs and the Reform of the WTO

Article excerpt


At first impression, the tension between developing countries and labor, human rights, environmental, international development and social action groups in industrialized countries2 that were protesting at the November 1999 Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle is puzzling. Governments of developing countries, who are the official, often democratically elected, representatives of the poorest parts of our world3 and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which work to create better conditions for the poor and the powerless in both rich and poor countries, should be natural allies in efforts to reform the WTO. They both want a democratic and accountable WTO that is more concerned with the problems of poverty and development and they both seek a more just and sustainable international trading system.

Despite these common objectives, the governments of developing countries and the Northern NGOs do not seem to recognize each other as potential allies. Developing countries tend to view the NGOs as meddling groups from rich countries who do not understand the realities of poor countries, but who nevertheless seek to impose their views upon them. They also believe that the NGOs are seeking to expand the ability of other countries and international organizations to intervene in their affairs, which undermines these countries' ability to control their own development process.

Northern NGOs tend to see governments of developing countries as conservative, corrupt, and primarily interested in protecting their own power and wealth. As a result, NGOs tend to find their tactical allies among the G8 countries4 that control the WTO, despite the fact that these countries are the beneficiaries of a trading system that the NGOs view as irresponsible and unfair.5

At one level, the tension between the two groups can be explained by their differing priorities. The priorities of developing countries include: obtaining relief from the difficulties many of them are facing in implementing the Uruguay Round agreements; persuading industrialized countries to open their markets to textile, agricultural, and imported goods from developing countries;6 and making the WTO more sensitive to the problems of development. They also object to the opaque and exclusionary nature of the WTO negotiating process in which a few key countries can make deals that are then foisted onto the remaining WTO member

states. Finally, the developing countries are concerned about the creeping expansion in the mandate of the WTO.

The NGOs, on the other hand, are demanding that the WTO assume jurisdiction over such issues as labor rights and environment. They are also seeking to make the dispute settlement and decision-making processes in the WTO more open to participation by non-state actors.

Differing priorities, however, are not an adequate explanation for the current tension between these two groups. They do not explain, for example, why Northern NGOs and governments of developing countries seem to have such difficulty in communicating with each other and forming tactical alliances on specific issues such as democratizing the governance of the WTO, which can work to their mutual advantage.

In seeking a more adequate explanation, it is useful to look at the World Bank, which has for almost twenty years experienced similar conflicts between the governments of developing countries and NGOs.7 These conflicts revolve around the issues of incorporating environmental, labor, and human rights issues into development, and making the Bank more accountable, transparent, and participatory. Given the similarities between the disputed issues in the World Bank and the WTO, it is instructive to look at the underlying cause of the conflicts in the World Bank to determine the cause of the conflicts in the WTO. …

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