The first plenary session on Day 2 of the Civil Society Forum focussed on the role that UNCTAD could play in exploring strategies that could shift the centre of economic activities of Southern countries towards the national and regional.
Also in focus was reframing trade agreements and international cooperation to advance economic structural transformation, and building local economic resilience through technology justice.
The speakers were: Ms. Susana Barria, Public Services International; Mr. Parminder Jeet Singh, Senior Fellow, IT for Change; Ms. Sanya Reid Smith, Legal Adviser and Senior Researcher, Third World Network; Mr. Adam Wolfenden, Trade Justice Campaigner, Pacific Network for Globalization; Ms. Sofia Scasserra, Associate Researcher, Transnational Institute; and Ms. Jane Nalunga, Expert on trade, tax and investment related issues, Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI). The session was moderated by Ms. Deborah James, Coordinator, Our World Is Not For Sale.
Ms. Reid Smith raised the central question, “What is the role of UNCTAD?” She said that she was concerned to see that some parts of UNCTAD were suggesting that developing countries and LDCs restrict their policy space even when they are not required to by WTO rules. She gave as an example some of the e-trade readiness assessments done by UNCTAD for Tanzania. According to her, UNCTAD had suggested that the country should consider adding a de minimus value of up to 100 US dollars for imported goods. “That would mean that Tanzania could not collect tariffs on anything that costs less than 100 US dollars,” she said.
The legal adviser pointed out that, “There are currently negotiations at the WTO involving all the WTO members. For example, about how to restrict fisheries subsidies. There are not sufficient exceptions or special and differential treatment being given to developing countries and LDCs. So one way to ensure that they have sufficient policy space is to make sure that any such restrictions on giving fisheries subsidies have sufficient exceptions for LDCs and developing countries that are not limited by time, not limited by some small distance or small boats. So that they are able to develop their fishing industries.”
She lamented that, “Developed countries are not agreeing to sufficient preferential treatment. For example, least developed countries’ extension or renewal of the transition period for intellectual property rules for least developed countries which is supposed to be agreed as a mere formality. They had a right to it under the WTO rules.” She added that these conditions restrict the ability of developing countries to develop and integrate into the global economy.
Ambassador Gothami Silva, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO joined the discussion. She posed a question in relation to fisheries to Adam Wolfenden. She asked about his perspective on the most appropriate way for developing countries to discipline this distant water fishing, a term used to describe those countries that fish outside their own territories and usually extend their range of action to faraway places.
He replied by saying that, “Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nations have the right to exploit the resources within their exclusive economic zone. It’s not the Pacific that has decimated global fish stocks. It’s not Africa. It’s the Europeans. It’s those who have so heavily subsidised and built such capacity that has put us in the situation that we’re in. And they have to take the responsibility. They have to acknowledge their role in the situation we face. That’s where the conversation starts. As Civil Society we need to hold them to account. We need to say any agreement isn’t a win. It has to target those who are responsible. This isn’t just sustainability, it has to be development as well.”
Mr. Wolfenden said, “We don’t want to see the WTO undermine the sovereignty of nations and undermine other international treaties.”
He said, “The Pacific has a lot of experience in successfully managing its resources. Its management systems are considered world class. But what we’ve seen is consistent challenge to those management systems from Europe, from Australia and New Zealand. We need to uphold those sovereign rights which countries already have, and target specifically those countries which have created this historical situation.”
Julian Greig, co-founder Wellington Greig Consulting, also made remarks during the session. He said that, “In the islands of the Caribbean, e-commerce obviously has skyrocketed, specifically in this COVID time. Now, obviously moving everything online, the realities of the situation are we want to be doing this trade but the cost of doing business, compared to the rest of the world has significantly increased.”
He spoke of the fee structure of commercial banks and the cost of doing business online, He said that while more e-government type initiatives are being implemented, the question of access of the technology required to transact business online for the general population needed to be considered. “We want them to utilise these services,” he said. “We want them to be involved and to be moving along. We want them to be learning online. We want them to be doing their commerce. But we also have to understand that this is the reality on the ground. The individuals being able to afford access to a mobile network, getting access to a laptop, getting access to a computer, getting access to a mobile phone to interface and utilise these services that are being made available.”
Mr. Greig also raised the issue of the unbanked and the underbanked. He said, “We’re talking about financial inclusion, but this financial inclusion is coming back now to the same listing of technology. We have a large portion of the population, because of our culture, who do not have access to these financial services. We’re moving into more and more digital currency, and trade using an online environment. Unfortunately, we’re not moving along significant portions of the population at the same time.”
He ended by saying, “We look forward to giving our input, of course, having an impact and having our voice heard at that UNCTAD level to see that these policies when they get implemented actually make a difference in the lives of people on a day-to-day basis.”