Ben Lilliston is communications coordinator for and Mark Ritchie is president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a group based in Minneapolis, Minn., that works to keep family farmers on the land.

Monday, 12 Nov 2001

DOHA, Qatar

Ben Lilliston

This morning, day three of the World Trade Organization meeting in Qatar, felt different. For one, I got a good night’s sleep — no 3 a.m. wake-up call from jetlag, as happened the previous nights. Still, the day got off to a familiar rocky start: In the lobby of the Movenpick hotel, which was built especially for the WTO conference, delegates, the media, and NGOs quickly ran out of patience with the Qatari bus system, upon which we all depend to get to the conference center in the Sheraton.

Because of the high level of security surrounding the meeting, most attendees spend a remarkable portion of their time passing through checkpoints, getting their bags searched, and accidentally setting off alarms. Once we make it through those security stations, we must take assigned buses to a designated transfer point. From there, we’re brought to the Sheraton conference center, where we must pass through yet another steady stream of checkpoints and searches.

This morning, I visited the Qatar Exhibition Hall, which is where the nongovernmental organizations are based. It’s a good 10-minute walk from the Sheraton and we found out that most members of the press — based in the Sheraton — aren’t interested in taking the short hike in the hot Qatar sun to hear critics of the WTO. So we’ve had to take the initiative and go to the Sheraton to air our points of view. Meanwhile, in the Exhibition Hall, you can hear regular rehearsals for a variety of street theater. At noon today, a group performed an entertaining parody of the WTO process with the U.S. and E.U. trade reps appearing as puppets for big business.

After arriving at the Exhibition Hall, our crew set up shop and began the process of steadily uploading interviews, press releases, and reports onto our website.

??$, reporting about what is going on at the WTO meeting is more important than it was in Seattle, where the press was everywhere. In Doha, the U.S. press consists mostly of a few national dailies, and there have been severe restrictions on the participation of NGOs. From our unofficial count, only five U.S. NGOs critical of the WTO are here. (Businesses also count as NGOs.)

Why is the WTO in Qatar? Last year, when the WTO asked its 142 members who wanted to host its next conference, 141 members meekly left the room. They had seen what happened in Seattle, as well as ensuing global meetings in Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Davos, where critics of corporate globalization held massive protests. Only the tiny country of Qatar, a peninsula just off of Saudi Arabia, stepped forward to hold the meeting.

The WTO thought they had struck gold. It turned out the Qataris had only about 5,000 spaces for lodging. This gave the WTO the perfect excuse to limit the number of entry visas to the country, and thus limit access for anti-WTO protestors. The increasing tensions in the region associated with Sept. 11 further discouraged many delegates and NGOs from attending. The WTO, which is still longing for its salad days of relative obscurity, couldn’t have picked a better venue to avoid scrutiny.

But the WTO has become too important to ignore. So, despite the obstacles, representatives from some 200 NGOs around the world have traveled to Doha in an attempt to voice concerns about the WTO’s impact on the environment, labor issues, human rights, farming, and economic development. I can tell you firsthand, a WTO meeting is not for the squeamish. Like camel dung in the desert, the closer you get to the WTO process, the more it stinks.

As I steadily interview representatives monitoring the negotiations, it’s obvious just how fragile the WTO system is. Although countries seem to enthusiastically buy the WTO’s line that free trade is good for everyone, it quickly becomes clear that most don’t believe the propaganda — particularly not when it comes from the world’s favorite punching bag, the U.S. As a part of the WTO negotiations, the U.S. has called for reducing agriculture subsidies by countries around the world. Never mind the $22.9 billion in direct government subsidies to U.S. agriculture in 2000. Moreover, the U.S. has also called for more enforcement of patents. Forget about last month’s threat to cancel Bayer’s patent on the antibiotic that treats anthrax. Nearly every person we meet from another country talks about how badly the U.S. is behaving during negotiations.

Countries from the developing world are extremely upset with the process, charging that the current agreements on agriculture, patents, and services have not benefited them, and that they’ve been closed out of the negotiating process. The U.S. and the European Union, the powerhouses within the WTO, have been aggressively pushing for a new round of negotiations that would expand trade talks to include other issues such as investment and procurement. Developing countries want to fix the inadequacies of the existing agreements before the WTO’s jurisdiction is expanded.

While I gather information and interviews, other IATP staff meet with delegations from other countries lobbying for more favorable agriculture trade rules. At this stage, the meeting is a constant guessing game, with the media and NGOs stumbling over each other, trying to find out what the heck is going on.

The day ends at 10 p.m. with a conversation with a Nepalese waiter in a local Indian restaurant. He came to Doha, he tells us, because he could find a job that paid a decent wage. “The Qataris do not do this kind of work,” he says. Even the unemployed Qataris are paid more each month by the government than he earns in his job. The complex issues of globalization follow us even to the dinner table. On the bus back to the hotel, a fried Chinese diplomat blows up at our bus driver because we wait in the bus for a good 15 minutes before we leave. The WTO has two days to bring 144 countries together on an agreement, or risk another embarrassment. Everyone is feeling the pressure.