Mapping the bumpy road to Cancún

Head, Trade Directorate

Click to enlarge. Image by David Rooney

Ever since WTO ministerials were introduced as a regular gathering of the trade policy community, the question has been raised with haunting regularity: will the next WTO Ministerial Conference be a success or a failure? Is the multilateral trade system threatened by new and serious perils? What will the ministerial in Cancún in September achieve? 

It has now been more than twenty years since the GATT, and in turn the WTO, altered the nature of the multilateral trade system, shifting the focus from strict negotiation of customs tariffs to the formulation of rules to promote and oversee the liberalisation of trade.

Since the ministerial meeting of the GATT contracting parties in 1982, which had ended in disagreement over the launch of negotiations that four years later would become the Uruguay Round, the ministerial conferences have had their share of fruitful and less fruitful moments: Geneva 1982, failure; Punta del Este 1986, success; Montreal 1988, semi-failure; Geneva 1989, semi-success; Brussels 1990, failure; Marrakesh 1994, success; Singapore 1996, semi-success; Geneva 1998, semi-success; Seattle 1999, failure; Doha 2001, semi-success. And Cancún?

Despite this litany with an almost binary beat, the multilateral trade system has never stopped working and moving forward. Adding to the volatility of the negotiating rounds has been the persistent expression of public scepticism towards the liberalisation of trade and investment, focused on agriculture from the 1980s. This scepticism became more widespread after the mid-1990s, when the civil society movement developed under the newly interested spotlight of the media, which until then had shown little interest in multilateral trade negotiations, except in a one-off and specialised manner.

The Doha meeting, in 2001, set up a bold programme of negotiations which included topics like investment, competition and the environment, topics that were new for the negotiators but had already been discussed at length in such international forums as the WTO, UNCTAD and the OECD. Several items will fill the agenda at the upcoming ministerial conference in Cancún: topics linked to market access, with the usual issues of liberalisation of services and tariff reductions, both agricultural and non-agricultural; subjects approached from a new angle, such as that of trade facilitation; the discussions of rules on antidumping and subsidies; the thorny issue of the liberalisation of agriculture; and the ever-present issue of special treatment and differentiation for developing countries.

The conference aims to achieve progress on all negotiating fronts, but it is unquestionably a small number of topics that will grab the ministers’ attention and set the tone of the discussions – as well as public opinion. Clearly perception is the keyword, for even if some important orientations are to be set there, the Cancún meeting is but the half-way point in a lengthy process. According to the timetable adopted in Doha, the negotiations, which are to be balanced for all and in all respects by means of a “single undertaking” (“there is agreement on nothing until there is an agreement on everything”), should be finalised by 1 January 2005.

The task at hand is assuredly colossal, and nobody should imagine, given the dynamics of negotiation and concession-swapping, that the results of the Cancún Conference, whether positive or negative, will in fact be definitive, in this sense, the Conference itself should not be judged in terms of success or failure.

The numerous deadlines set in Doha, which – as many people have taken pleasure in pointing out – have been or will be missed, have only symbolic value. Only one deadline matters: that of the final agreement, although it has to be acknowledged that none of the previous rounds ever adhered to the date set initially.

Intermediate dates, such as those set for the agreement on medicines, on special and differential treatment (December 2002), on agriculture, on services (March 2003) and on market access for non-agricultural products (May 2003), need to be taken seriously, but only as guidelines. Their function is more as a stimulus than a deadline, as proven by the fact that once such a date has gone by and not been met, work and discussions go on, as is currently the case.

To use a sporting analogy, these dates could be likened to refreshment stations along the route of a marathon, rather than to stages in a cycling classic: if refreshments are missed, the race will be more difficult, but will go on. One risk, of course, is that the runners will switch races and opt for a sprint for quick arrangements, like regional rather than multilateral ones. So, as in any good marathon it is necessary to keep up the pace without flinching.

Among the topics that could make Cancún an important event, three would seem to warrant special attention: access to medicines; special and differential treatment for developing countries; liberalisation of agricultural trade.

In respect of access to generic medicines, which pits the entire WTO membership against a single country, it should be borne in mind that the moral dimension of the issue— because it directly affects the lives of human beings—transcends the purely economic dimension of intellectual protection. Who in all decency could allow themselves to persist in blocking an agreement aimed at saving millions of human lives?

From this standpoint, the debate over the kinds of diseases that could be covered by such an accord, even its limitation to pandemics such as HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, seem somewhat surreal when one realises that each year the developing world incurs more deaths from pneumonia, diarrhoea and flu than from any of these three illnesses. Moreover, the latter are often harder to treat as well. Given the importance of the issue to developing countries, it would appear unthinkable that delegates could leave Cancún without resolving the uncertainty over the health care policies of the countries that need it the most.

Special and differential treatment for developing countries is also a crucial and omnipresent topic in the Doha Declaration. Decisions have to be taken, even if they are only provisional or partial. Beyond the response that the developing countries themselves await from the developed countries, in particular with respect to the indisputable needs of technical assistance and capacity-building, they should continue to ponder two issues.

First, is it in their own interest, sheltered by the special provisions they would benefit from, to postpone the reforms that would speed up the modernisation of their economies and their growth? And second, since the established term of “special and differential treatment” itself comprises the notion of difference, should it not apply to developing countries themselves? Does a developing country remain a developing country forever, and do the better-off among them also have an obligation of solidarity vis-à-vis the neediest?

Finally, there is the question of agriculture. Since the Uruguay Round, this long-sheltered sector has been engaged in a process of reform, market opening and liberalisation. This reform process cannot help but contribute to a redistribution of wealth not only between developed and developing countries, but also within the developed countries themselves. There, a small portion of the agricultural sector, which is competitive and efficient, confiscates most of the protectionist aid and income support for its own benefit, to the detriment of consumers and less-powerful powerful farmers at home or abroad.

Nobody doubts that agricultural reform should continue; on this subject, the OECD has recently published yet another study aimed at engaging a programme of constructive reform. But there are two pitfalls to avoid: confusing negotiating methods with their final outcome; and regarding intermediate stages as sacred. An outcome for this round of negotiations is conceivable only if it is balanced. This means that reform efforts will have to be shared between all forms of agricultural support, whether direct or indirect, transparent or more concealed. If realism wins out in Cancún, the negotiations will go forward smoothly. Otherwise, negotiations on agriculture risk being delayed, possibly until 2006. Whether that would be too late or a case of better-late-than-never, is another question. At a time of major crisis and instability in the political dimension of international relations, it is more important than ever that the economic and trade dimensions of the system be consolidated as a realm of co-operation and stability.

Of all the issues directly related to trade, one could say, paraphrasing French author André Malraux, that the round of negotiations undertaken in Doha “will be moral or will not be at all”. If, after the Cancún Conference, discussions continue and a number of agreements can be reached, in particular in respect of everything that is not tied to the single final agreement called for in the Doha Declaration, then the meeting will have been a success, including for the future of the multilateral trade system.


Metzger, J.M., “Don’t undo Doha”, OECD Observer No 235.

Heydon, K., “Making the global market work”, OECD Observer No 228. 

©OECD Observer No 237, May 2003

Economic data

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Last update: 10 Nov 2020

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