Since 1995 at the Beijing Conference there has been enhanced interest in research, advocacy and policy dialogue activities towards gender equity, particularly in Developing and Least Developed Countries (LDC's) undergoing economic reform.
Coincidentally, the WTO was established the same year the Beijing Conference on women was held. The imperatives and requirements of trade liberalisation have increasingly reduced the meaning and pursuit of development as well as constricted the policy space for government in addressing their development needs. Most of the policies have been prohibited in WTO disciplines. Rather than ensuring that countries achieve sustainable economic and social development, current trade policies prioritise the interest of global capital and profit maximisation.
In the era of globalisation, free trade is proclaimed the primary engine of economic growth for Africa. Policy makers and economic power brokers, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), leaders of industrialised nations, newly-industrialised countries and Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are insisting the market, not governments, should determine the production and distribution of goods and services.
However, voices of caution such as the UNDP's Human Development Reports, point out consistently, that growth does not guarantee gender equality or the elimination of poverty, particularly among groups that are marginalised in societies because of gender, race, ethnicity, or class. Various studies have revealed that liberalisation policies contribute to deeper or sudden poverty as well a greater economic insecurity. More critically, there are strong indications that liberalisation has increased inequalities within and among African societies. In many instances, these negative impacts are felt more strongly by women because of existing socio-historical gender-based asymmetries in market-based economies especially in property relations, women's responsibilities in social reproduction, and the social and legal discrimination against women.
A growing body of research confirms that trade policy and agreements are gender blind. Trade is discussed in economic and political terms, but the differential social and economic impact of changing trade patterns on women and men has not been considered relevant.
Trade liberalisation and economic integration operate in different modes and have different impacts within and between countries and between men and women. Some trends are clear.
First, countries and regions are affected differently by trade liberalisation. Countries engaged in extensive trade, such as the USA, Canada, Japan and members of the European Union have gained the most from the global trade policy and agreements.
Second, trade liberalisation affects women and men in different way in different part of the African continent. In some place, global restructuring has reinforced a gender-segregated labour market where women face fewer opportunities that men (Catagay, 2001).i
There is no doubt that undemocratic processes continue to drive the WTO agenda. The majority of African countries are left out of the Mini-ministerials that have an exclusive membership and leave Africa out of the decision-making processes. Meanwhile, chairs abuse their prerogative in drafting the text by passing off their documents as implied consensus. These meetings do not take into account the interests of developing countries.
The communiqué of November 8, 2005 from the African Group to Mr. Pascal Lamy the Director General is correcting in recalling that the African Group members have made substantial contributions since Doha. The political mandate of the African Group contained in the Cairo Declaration and its Annex the Cairo Road Map on the Doha Work Program (WT/L/612), should be a starting point for placing the interests of developing countries at the heart of the WTO Work Programme.
"Special and differential treatment" and "Mode 4" are the bargaining chips used by developed countries to keep developing countries and least developed countries in the game. These bargaining chips have little or no value as evidenced by the consistent failure of the WTO to deal with implementation issues.
Despite frenzied negotiations to hammer a deal, the much-lauded Doha Development Agenda is turning out to be a charade. Rather than rush an agreement on time that contains no significant and clear responses to the interests of women, men and children in African countries, WTO members should instead be making serious stock-taking of the fate of the WTO.
African countries should insist that negotiations on the political framework are over and what remains are deliberations on technical modalities. Women have long demanded - and now is the time to say: once more - that there is an urgency to go back to the political framework and to produce and alternative agenda for the multilateral trading system in which the social reproductive side of the economic and linkage between economic and social policies are at the core. The icing on the cake, which is the Doha Development Agenda, has melted revealing a stale cake underneath.
New but divisive alignments
African Ministers should take great caution in endorsing some middle-income developing countries that are joining new alliances that are fragmenting the cohesion among African and developing countries. Brazil and India with the U.S., the EU and Australia make up the five Interest Parties (FIPs), which currently in the key negotiating group preparing for the 6th Ministerial in Hong Kong. With its focus on market access, the agreements of the FIPs could come at a cost to many African countries whose primary interest are not necessarily market access. The G-33 for example, has interests in special products and special safeguard measures, agendas which neither the FIPs nor the broader grouping of the G-20 in agriculture are carrying forward in the negotiations.
i Catagay, N. 2001. Gender Trade and Poverty. UNDP (NY) International Gender and Trade Network http://www.igtn.org