Whither the World Trade Organization?

Shipping containers Image copyright Getty Images

Does the World Trade Organization matter anymore?

That is the big question hanging over the WTO as trade ministers from its member countries gather in Nairobi.

They are heading to the Kenyan capital for the WTO's tenth ministerial conference.

The organisation is increasingly at risk of being side-lined as groups of countries do trade and investment deals outside it.

The WTO was established in 1995 to be the main forum for trade rules and for negotiating the removal of barriers to international commerce.

It is conducting a wide-ranging set of negotiations intended to take this process further. It is called the Doha Round, and it was launched in the Qatari capital 14 years ago.

It is still limping along despite the original target for completing the talks being the beginning of 2005.

So far all it really has to show is an agreement on improving customs procedures, known as the Trade Facilitation Agreement.

The wider negotiations - to reduce tariffs (taxes on imports), farm subsidies and remove many other trade barriers - have failed to produce results.

Many countries have turned their attention to negotiating in smaller groups. The prime examples are the United States' negotiations with Pacific nations and with the European Union.

Is the Doha Round finished?

It's very unlikely that the Nairobi conference will pronounce it dead. Some countries, including India, Indonesia and Venezuela want a formal reaffirmation of the declaration issued back in Doha.

Others, notably the US and European Union do not. They think it has become clear that this huge exercise - known in WTO-speak as a "single undertaking" - will fail to deliver results.

So it is certainly possible that the Nairobi Conference will mark an important moment in the failure of the Doha Round.

However, there are areas where there could be some agreement.

One is the final agreement among a group of countries on tariff-free trade in a range of technology goods. This would extend an existing deal to a number of additional goods including new-generation semi-conductors, GPS navigation systems, some medical devices and touch screens.

No guarantees

There is also the possibility of a deal to improve export opportunities for the poorest nations, the least developed countries. This is about extending the scope for them to sell their goods without quota restrictions or tariffs.

There are signs that the WTO's members do seem to be willing to agree in these areas, but even so there is no guarantee they will.

It is possible that there will be no formal ministerial declaration at the end. That would be the first such failure since the Seattle Conference in 1999, which ended with acrimonious disagreement between governments and was accompanied by often violent protests in the city's streets.

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Image caption World Trade Organization director-general Roberto Azevedo

The WTO and its conference have in the past been a major focus for protests from groups which argue that globalisation has been a business-driven process undermining national sovereignty, environmental protection and labour standards.

More recently some of the trade negotiations outside the WTO have become more of a focus for some of these concerns.

Those other talks have, after all, made more progress. And there is a real possibility that the gap between the WTO's stumbling global agenda and the push towards smaller deals will be wider by the end of the Nairobi conference.

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