Rich vs poor: shadow of Geneva hangs over Davos

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS

Davos (Switzerland) : No matter how much they wish, the ‘rich’ of Davos can never get away from the shadow of the ‘poor’ gathered in another Swiss city – Geneva.

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This northern Swiss mountain resort, covered in a blanket of white, where 2,500 political, business and non government leaders have gathered to network amid signs of a global economic downturn, has been reminded again and again this week that movement in the Doha Round of world trade talks is crucial to economic recovery.

These talks are being held at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, about 400 km from Davos. Aimed at laying down the rules of global free trade for the poor of the world, they are stalled amid charges and counter-charges of protectionism between the developed and developing worlds.

One common thread between the two cities is far-away India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath, who leads India and a large swathe of developing countries – some of them very poor – at the WTO negotiations.

At the same time, he is a leading member of the Indian delegation to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, where the world’s wealthiest men gather to talk to each other, listen to politicians and hammer out business deals once a year. This year’s WEF kicked off Wednesday.

In a sense, Kamal Nath’s dual role also reflects India’s increasingly diverse status and role on the world stage.

Feted in Davos as a country that, along with China, can help cushion the worst global effects of a downturn – or even a recession – in the US, India is also a country that is fighting to protect the livelihood of its millions of poor farmers at the WTO in Geneva.

And reminders of that battle have been constant in Davos.

“We hope the developed countries will take leadership in this round of negotiations,” Kamal Nath told IANS in Davos.

“My fear is that the US will get more protectionist in an election year,” he added.

However, India is pressing on for negotiations in Geneva despite what many observers of the Doha Round say is imminent rejection of a text that has been billed as the basis of agreement.

Trade talks are stuck over several tracks, including a demand by India-led developing countries for the US and European Union to drastically cut their agricultural subsidies and a counter-demand by the US for India and other emerging nations to lower their tariffs on the entry of manufactured goods from the West.

Coincidentally, three leading figures in the Geneva negotiations are also present in Davos – apart from Kamal Nath, there is US Trade Secretary Susan Schwab and the European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

However, it was not immediately clear if the three of them would meet in Davos.

Opening the conference, US Trade Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about the importance of “the global expansion of free and fair trade”.

“It is not easy for a US president to advocate free and fair trade at a time of growing economic populism. But President (George) Bush and I remain committed to completing a successful Doha Round and Susan Schwab, who is here in Davos this evening, is working to do just that,” she said.

“President Bush has pledged that the United States will eliminate all tariffs, subsidies and barriers to the free flow of goods and services – including agriculture – as other nations do the same. We expect our partners to join us in finding a way to make Doha a success,” she added.

In speaking of ‘our partners’ Rice may well have been referring to the European Union – mutual recrimination over the huge agricultural subsidies paid out to their agricultural sector has been partly responsible for the stalling of the global trade talks.

Member-states of the WTO are set to discuss new texts in agriculture and manufacturing soon – the dates being discussed are the end of January and beginning of February.

(Dipankar De Sarkar can be contacted at [email protected])