Courtesy Reuters

Cancún's False Promise: A View From the South

In discussions about the World Trade Organization talks at Cancún last September, the voice of the economic North is often heard loudest ("Don't Cry for Cancún," January/February 2004). The economic South deserves the chance to speak too.


There is no doubt that the collapse of the talks was not good news for poor countries. But there are times when a bad deal is worse than no deal at all. Cancún was just such a case. The only positive thing for the poor to have come out of the talks was the unprecedented show of unity among developing countries. I hope this unity is sustainable, and I urge rich and powerful countries to try to direct it toward constructive outcomes rather than undermine it.

Developing countries went to Cancún with two main objectives. The first was to dismantle agricultural subsidies and other tariff and nontariff barriers placed on certain agricultural and processed products in which we have a comparative advantage. We hoped, in line with the Doha Development Agenda (the November 2001 document laying down priorities for the current round of global trade talks), that Cancún would lead to measures promoting fair trade and thus diminish our overreliance on aid and encourage economic growth.

Our second aim was to deny the consensus needed to proceed with the so-called Singapore issues: investment, competition, government procurement, and trade facilitation. This position was not, as many commentators have argued, a knee-jerk rejection. Rather, we had reasoned concerns about whether the World Trade Organization was the best venue, and Cancún the best time, to discuss the issues in question. In any case, although disagreement over the Singapore issues was the trigger for the collapse at Cancún, the dispute over agricultural subsidies was at least as much to blame for the impasse.

Cancún came at a time when it was increasingly unreasonable for rich countries to ask poor ones to open up their markets while

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