SA President Sites Multilateral Flaws

South African President, Thabo Mbeki, contends that while the concepts of freedom, justice and equality are core to the United Nations, global governance has fallen short of the institutional transformation necessary to deliver on with the global deals that drives this core through what he calls ‘modern democratic societies’. Mbeki was addressing the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September 2007.

While the WTO is not a UN organ, it has certainly been up for scrutiny in the face of global governance issues, and Mbeki pointedly raised the development dimension of the Doha Development Round in his address.

Mbeki sees the world as clearly defined by ‘the dominant and the dominated’ with the dominant being the decision makers in the global forums, including at the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO. In these bodies he contends that a ‘skewed distribution of power in the world – political, economic, military, technological and social’ is replicated in these multilateral institutions, which translates into a serious disadvantage to the world’s poor. Mbeki has long been categorized as an international statesman and rightly recognises that the multilateral governance bodies do correctly identify the problems and appropriate solutions needed to solve international problems. He credits the ‘dominant and the powerful’ for often responding positively to multilaterally agreed initiatives. Indeed in this vein we note that concurrent with Mbeki’s UN address, Botswana’s President, Festus Mogae, speaking in Washington indicated that: “‘I’ll contend that in economic terms, AGOA is the single most important Africa-focused initiative by [the US] government in the last 50 years that has had the greatest impact, economic impact.” Mbeki however leaves the serious caveat that the 1st world responses, in the nature of those cited by Mogae, are contingent upon the narrow interests of the dominant without altering the status quo in global power relations.

This leaves the stark reality that it is extremely difficult for the UN and company to implement its own decisions in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. In this regard Mbeki commented that: “noble statements continue to be uttered on all matters facing the majority of the people of the world such as the need to successfully conclude the Doha Development Round, while little is done to implement this and the many critical agreements necessary to pull the poor out of the morass of poverty and underdevelopment.”
His own solution is premised on the post World War 2, Marshall Plan, where extraordinary resource transfers were made to Europe to prime its development fuse. Mbeki leaves the question open as to why in the face of a similar global need today; there is an absence of the same resolve to assist poor nations today?

Perhaps tagged with Mbeki’s observations on the interests of the dominant and powerful, part of this answer lies in the premise that in the case of South Africa at least, the country is not seen by those who make up the dominant crew as being a poor nation.

In this regard we note that in early September the U.S. Trade Representative, Susan Schwab, opened the Doha bidding after the Geneva summer recess by berating South Africa, together with Argentina, India and Brazil of placing the Doha Round in danger of failing, citing their behavior as frustrating efforts to reach, what is really the WTO bottom feeder deal, being an agreement on duty reductions on agricultural and industrial tariffs. The USTR apparently sees the view of these countries, which is in fact mirrored more widely in the Africa Group, that the proposed cuts that poorer nations are asked to make in industrial tariffs are far bigger than the concessions being asked of richer countries on agricultural products, thus undermining the aim of the Doha round to focus on farming as the issue of most concern to developing countries.
Perhaps there is a case to be made that this ‘frustrating tactic’ contention is conceptually flawed, and that it may in itself be a frustrating tactic. Rather South Africa may merely be asserting a wider coming of age of developing nations, and actually be engaging as a functional negotiator, but within a context of Mbeki’s pointed observation in the UN General Assembly that functionally little is being done to address the critical agreements necessary to pull the poor out of ‘the morass of poverty and underdevelopment’. Perhaps it is unfair to place the responsibility for the execution of lofty rhetoric in the hands of the give and take specialists in Geneva. Arguably a clear political signal couched in direct instructions from the originators of the lofty rhetoric is presently lacking in the Doha trade talks, as perhaps it is in the UN.