The Power of the Powerless

The Politics of Poverty at the Doha Round

A delegate waits for the opening of a session of the Trade Negotiation Committee at the WTO in Geneva, July 22, 2013. Denis Balibouse / Courtesy Reuters

On April 15, the World Trade Organization (WTO) will mark its 20th anniversary. But no one will be in the mood to celebrate. The Doha Development Agenda—the first round of trade negotiations launched under the umbrella of the WTO and the ninth in the history of the multilateral trading system—has been deadlocked since it began in November 2001. Its goal is to encourage international trade by lowering tariffs and trade barriers, but the negotiations, originally set to conclude in 2005, have dragged on with no end in sight. The mood within the organization is understandably somber, morale is low, and negotiators are undermining a multilateral effort by turning to controversial and imbalanced regional and bilateral trade agreements.

It might sound counterintuitive, but one way to understand the long and dreary stalemates that have gripped the WTO is as an effect of the power of the poor. The analysis derives from economist Mancur Olson’s idea of “the ‘exploitation’ of the great by the small,” but for Olson, the strength of the “small” stemmed from their ability to free-ride off of the “great.” The Doha negotiations reveal qualitatively different and new ways in which developing countries can use their inherent weakness, poverty, as a bargaining advantage. But the Doha talks have also revealed how rich countries have since misappropriated this paradoxical advantage for their own benefit.


When the multilateral trading regime was first established with the creation of the WTO’s predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), developing countries worked hard to incorporate their development concerns into the agenda, although without much success. Occasionally, poor countries secured “special and differential treatment,” which took their low-income status into account and did not hold them to the same trading standards as wealthier nations. But this special treatment was often subject to the generosity and whim of the wealthier nations and could just as quickly be withdrawn. Since 2000, developing countries have reversed course and, with the WTO, have had unprecedented

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