Anti-Poverty Efforts at the Center of WTO Talks

For six days starting today, representatives from 150 rich and poor nations are gathering in Hong Kong to find ways to lower poverty through trade.

Christian aid and advocacy organizations say the focus needs to stay on making it easy for poor countries to sell their fruits and vegetables in rich countries without high trade tariffs.

In return, those rich nations want easy access to poor nations to provide their services such as water, healthcare, insurance and banking.

But advocates are also keeping up the pressure on increasing the amount of development aid that rich nations give to poorer ones to help develop their ability to trade on a more even playing field.

At the opening ceremony of today’s gathering the chief of the World Trade Organization, the name of the forum where the nations are gathered this week, told those assembled that they need to set aside their previous thoughts if any progress is to be made.

“Repeating long-known positions … refusing to understand the reasons of counterparts and avoiding any risks, including political risks, will get us nowhere,” said director General of the WTO Pascal Lamy, according to Kyodo News.

The result of such risks, will mean “a chance for improved rules, for a level playing field, for free and fair trade” and development, he said.

Since 2001 when most of these same nations met in Doha, Qatar to begin a round of talks to help poor countries develop, there has been no major agreement reached. For some key players in the talks, the meetings have reached a clear limit. Most hope that progress can be made by the end of this year or early next year.

Time is considered critical. The U.S. Congress currently has “fast-track” authority to vote for or against an entire trade agreement. After the time is up in July, a trade agreement can be picked apart and amended.

“We’ve been at this for four years,” said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman before the start of this Hong Kong Ministerial meeting, taking place from Dec. 13-18. “It’s time to bring the Doha Round [of trade talks] to an end. It’s time to make tough decisions.”

The tough decisions involve taking risks, which nations on both sides of the poverty-prosperity spectrum have been wary of. A rich nation that lets in food from poor nations risks seeing its own farmers suddenly faced with competition from poor countries where it’s much cheaper to produce. Poor nations that allow huge service companies to come in risk seeing prices for those services increase beyond the means of most of their people.

For Christian anti-poverty advocacy groups, such as Washington, D.C.-based Bread for the World, the trade talks have had a clear objective since their 2001 inception – that of helping the poor.

Bread for the World will be sending its representatives to Hong Kong that will take strive to keep the focus on the original reason for the talks

“Ultimately, the test of success or failure for the Doha Development Round is how it affects poor people,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.

Two weeks ago, Beckmann, along with religious leaders from mainline denominations, as well as Jewish and Muslim representatives met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to push boldly in the international arena, telling leaders to reduce agricultural subsidies and increase the amount of development aid given to poorer nations.

Around 6,000 delegates from various nations are expected to attend the conference. Another 2,000 will come from non-governmental organizations along with 3,000 journalists, according to the Associated Press.

In the streets, about 10,000 protesters are expected, with police hoping to avoid the violence that has marred previous meetings of the WTO.