The WTO’s Buenos Aires Ministerial: What Is at Stake for Africa and LDCs?

8 November 2017

The launch of the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round in 2001, also known as the Doha Development Agenda, triggered much hope among developing countries that the multilateral trade rulebook could be updated to better fit their specific needs and priorities. “We shall continue to make positive efforts designed to ensure that developing countries, and especially the least-developed among them, secure a share in the growth of world trade commensurate with the needs of their economic development,” reads the ministerial declaration adopted in Doha.

Sixteen years later, hope has given way to a degree of disillusionment. Protracted deadlock on core Doha issues – agriculture, non-agricultural market access, and services – led WTO members to disagree on whether or not to reaffirm the Doha mandate at the WTO’s Nairobi ministerial conference in 2015, quashing any realistic prospect of concluding this “development round” in its original form.

Despite this dissonance, WTO members have been able to cooperate and produce some tangible outcomes, including issues that can be considered important from a development perspective. The Trade Facilitation Agreement and the 2015 decision to end agricultural export subsidies can be viewed in this light, as can more development-specific outcomes such as the packages secured by least developed countries (LDCs) in Bali in 2013 and Nairobi in 2015 articulated around core priorities like duty-free and quota-free market access, preferential rules of origin, the services waiver, and cotton.

A few weeks ahead of the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires in December 2017, however, prospects for negotiated outcomes remain highly uncertain – including on rules governing fisheries subsidies seen as the most plausible candidate for a multilateral deal. In addition, it appears that expectations surrounding a substantial agreement on LDC-specific issues are low. This does not mean that Buenos Aires will not carry significant development implications.

In this context, what should African countries, in particular LDCs, expect from MC11? How should they engage in WTO discussions ahead of the conference and beyond? This issue aims at providing some possible answers to these questions. The contributions address various aspects of the multilateral trade talks – through both issue-specific and more systemic angles – and offer insights to better understand how negotiations in Buenos Aires could have ramifications for Africa and LDCs.

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