December 09, 2013
Mubarak Zeb Khan
Pakistan has decided to stay away from the ninth WTO ministerial meeting to express its resentment over a possible deal that would allow subsidy on exports of agriculture products.
However, Islamabad’s U-turn at the 11th hour from the earlier decision to attend the meeting will have a negative impact on Pakistan at a time when it is struggling to improve its image internationally to lure investors into the country.
No doubt, every country has a right to take positions on issues that promote or safeguard its business and national interests. But in the present case, the whole issue is of governance and lack of direction on the part of the ministry of commerce.
The protest came from Islamabad on a proposal of the G-33 — an alliance of developing countries — seeking production subsidy. India is one of the major beneficiaries of the proposal, as it is interested in buying maximum local production of rice and wheat under its food security programme.
While it is an election issue for India, for millions of poor rice and wheat growers of smaller developing countries, it’s a matter of livelihood and survival.
The federal government should launch an investigation into the issue to fix responsibility for not taking timely action to block the G-33 proposal at the initial stage. The G-33 has been discussing the proposal since October 2012, while seeking support from various member countries at Geneva.
No objection to the Indian proposal was reported by the commerce ministry until everything was finalised for the ministerial meeting in Bali. The question is, why were the costly-funded Geneva-based mission and its parent, the ministry of commerce, sleeping on the issue. This needs immediate government attention because it will also guide Pakistan’s bilateral trade matters with India.
A large number of officials have been appointed in the country’s mission in Geneva by Islamabad to pursue multilateral talks on liberalising world trade, though the dialogue got deadlocked after 10 years of hectic efforts. Last year, two new high-level posts were created at the WTO office to accommodate political nominees.
In order to deal with legal matters, three officers were posted at the mission while no legal matters were pending with the WTO.
There are also reports of internal rivalry and disagreements among officers at the Geneva mission from various groups, including customs, administrative services and the commerce ministry. This internal rivalry is impacting the country’s negotiating position.
The government created the WTO mission in Geneva soon after the launch of the Doha Development Round of talks in 2001. This staffing issue needs to be revisited to remove the redundant staff.
The government has to evolve a clear policy for posting trade officers abroad. It should make these officials sign a bond for serving the commerce ministry after completing their foreign postings. Currently, officers from non-trade groups are posted as trade officers abroad, but they rejoin their parent departments after they return.
Pakistan can seek guidance from the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) policy on posting of non-trade cadre officers in commerce and trade offices.
State Minister for Commerce Khurram Dastgir Khan defended the government’s decision to stay away from the ministerial meeting to block the G-33 proposal for flexible subsidies on procurement of rice and wheat.
Support to the subsidy move in the name of food security, he said, would hurt Pakistani rice exports to a large extent.
However, for some trade experts, the government’s decision to abstain from the WTO meeting comes as a ‘surprise’. Pakistan’s absence from the ministerial meeting will only provide an opportunity to its opponents to declare the country as a non-believer in multilateralism, an expert added.
Pakistan also lost an opportunity to discuss bilateral issues with major trading partners at the sidelines of the meeting. Mr Dastgir says Pakistan already sent a letter of protest to the director-general of WTO 12 days ago.
The state minister was clear in his mind that no major issue that was of interest to Pakistan was on the table for negotiations. The spirit of the Bali ministerial meeting was reduced to minor issues like trade facilitation and G-33 proposals. It ignored the major issues that were related to non-agriculture market access.
No doubt, Pakistan should not compromise its position, but it needs to come up with a well thought out consensus position on all important issues.
Agriculture :Why Pakistan stayed away from WTO meeting