Stop Rubber Stamping Trade Deals
by Christi van der Westhuizen
CAPE TOWN, Oct 4 (IPS) - Civil society should call African parliaments to account on international trade negotiations as parliamentarians have in the past not been "robust" enough in ensuring that such talks deliver on developmental priorities.
This candid admission came from Sisa Njikelana, a South African parliamentarian representing the ruling African National Congress, at a discussion organised by the Africa Trade Network and the Trade Strategy Group.
These organisations, which represent civil society groups from South Africa and the rest of the continent, advocate fair trade policies that advance social justice. They organised a two-day seminar on Oct 1-2 on the present state of the Doha Round of talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Cape Town, South Africa.
Njikelana, who is a member of the parliamentary portfolio committee on trade and development, admitted that South African parliamentarians have been "rumbling and mumbling about always getting the cake already baked when it comes to trade agreements", meaning parliamentarians only become aware of the content of trade agreements when they have been finalised.
At that late stage, parliamentarians can only ratify the agreements and not propose any amendments. "The question that arises is whether parliamentarians have become rubber stamps?"
He argued for a "more vigorous and visible role" for parliaments in the developing world and especially Africa with regards to oversight over the content and progress of trade talks, while still giving governments the space to engage in the actual negotiations.
Njikelana urged the trade activists present at the meeting to ensure that parliaments get involved with the content of trade agreements in the early stages of negotiation. "The trade and development agenda should be driven by the need to improve the quality of life of the poor. If we veer off the path, you should call us to account."
He also suggested that parliamentarians needed civil society's support in order to drive pro-poor trade and development policies. "Even the WTO has admitted the importance of civil society involvement with the WTO Public Forum held this week."
While there may be questions about the effectiveness of the event, where NGOs meet with governments to discuss the international trading system, it is still a "good thing". Njikelana urged activists to also engage with the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) and with the East African Legislative Authority (EALA).
While PAP is the legislative arm of the African Union, EALA serves as legislative arm for the East African Community.
Njikelana's statements provoked a heated debate. He was taken on by Moses Shaha, chairperson of the Kenya Small-Scale Farmers Forum, and General Secretary of the Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF); who declared, "government is turning against us and singing a foreign song.
"How can we remove a son of ours who is in parliament and becomes part of the problem? Once he leaves parliament, he’ll be one of us again but while he earns money, he won’t let it go (by making decisions against dominant interests)." The Kenya Small-Scale Farmers Forum is a non-governmental lobby group working to advance the interests of non-commercial farmers in Kenya.
Shaha admonished all present "to come out of the goody-goody feeling" and "provoke the law", as that was the only way to push back "the advancing wall", he said with reference to the agricultural agreement currently being negotiated as part of the Doha Round. "What is to be done?" he asked.
In response to Shaha's challenge, Angelica Katuruza, director in Zimbabwe’s ministry of regional integration and international cooperation, said farmers "should make a lot of noise. If government officials are making the wrong decisions, make a noise. They have ears; they will hear it."
To which Nathan Irumba, chief executive of the Southern and East Africa Trade, Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) quipped, "But what if they don’t want to hear?" SEATINI does research and advocacy on trade issues.
Marie-Lou Roux, executive officer of the environmental non-governmental organisation Habitat Council, threw down the gauntlet by asking whether activists "should chain themselves to the gates of parliament" if parliamentarians don’t heed their calls.
In response Njikelana stated that, "I want my organisation (the ANC) to be challenged. You should take your public representatives on but in a positive way. Don’t chain yourself to the gates. There is nothing wrong with contacting the chairpersons of portfolio committees (to put your case). But if we dilly-dally, then you can chain yourself."
Talking to IPS, he said he is upset about how little engagement there is between civil society and parliamentarians, which is why he decided to raise the issue forcefully at the meeting.
In an interview with IPS, Tetteh Hormeku, head of programmes at Third World Network (TWN) Africa, said that the activists at the meeting regard their role, among others, as "to show up, put demands and put pressure but also to support and encourage our governments in Africa to take position" against the current negotiations at the WTO. TWN works for trade justice.
For the past two years, activists mobilised around the issue of the trade deals known as economic partnership agreements (EPAs) as the WTO "was a bit comatose", explained Hormeku. With the new impetus towards concluding the Doha Round, African trade activists are focusing their sights on the different aspects of the WTO negotiations to mobilise people but also to assist African governments.
As Katuruza pointed out, some African countries do not even have permanent representatives in Geneva, where the WTO is based, as they cannot afford it. Njikelana also spoke about the serious "intellectual and administrative" capacity constraints that affect parliamentarians as they frequently do not have the knowledge or the support to get to grips with complicated trade issues.
TWN focuses on demystifying trade and making the issues more understandable. For example, Hormeku pointed out, "African countries never asked for non-agricultural market access (NAMA). Non-agricultural market access is a euphemism for industrial tariff reduction. It is obfuscation.
"Whenever developing countries say 'we don’t want to cut our tariffs on industrial goods', the North says 'but you’ll get market access'," he added. Given African states' inability to compete, this is untrue in most cases.
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