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THE ISSUE: Case to be made

Researched and written by Shawn Cumberbatch

THE ISSUE: Case to be made

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Barbados is not new to the international trade arena and its related provisions.
    As pointed out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, the island was a “contracting party to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1967. In December 1994 it was among GATT members that signed the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
“As a small island economy, Barbados is highly dependent on trade and consequently on an efficient multilateral trading system,” the ministry noted.
But is it really that straightforward? The evidence suggests it is not, hence the persistent lobbying over the years for small vulnerable economies like Barbados’, and others in the African, Caribbean and Pacific grouping generally, for special and differential treatment in the context of global trade agreements and rules.
As the world started to implement a new regime of trade liberalisation about 20 years ago, a new era which meant that all WTO members would have to abide by the same rules, fears mounted that small developing states like Barbados would be overwhelmed by having to satisfy the same regulations of their developed counterparts like the United States and countries in Europe, which had significantly more resources.
It was then that the words “special and differential treatment” emerged, words which have remained as important in 2014 as they did ten years ago.
As is the case with their counterparts in CARICOM, successive Barbados governments have lobbied for such treatment, essentially arguing that because the international trade playing field was far from level, there was a need for the WTO’s smallest and most vulnerable members to be given the time and space to implement trade agreements.
Failing this, they argued, industries stood the risk of being wiped out by imports from larger countries.
At the WTO ministerial held in Hong Kong in December 2005, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Dame Billie Miller said Barbados and other small states had not only asked for more time for the developing countries to implement the global trade agreements now being negotiated, but for international help so they could live up to their trade obligations.
“As developing countries we are very clear as to what we want from this conference.
We want special and differential treatment, including longer time periods for implementing agreements and commitments, measures to increase trading opportunities for our countries, provisions requiring WTO members to safeguard the trade interests of developing countries, and support to help developing countries build the infrastructure to implement trade rules, and to manage trade disputes.”
Less than a year later as the negotiations within the WTO’s Doha development round stalled, Prime Minister Owen Arthur said special and differential treatment must be the “hallmark” of any further negotiations.
He said small states were “fighting a battle” to get the developed world to see special and differential treatment not as a favour or handout but as recognition of the different levels that existed between trading partners.
A change of political leadership in Barbados has not changed the desire for such accommodations, as demonstrated in February, 2010 when current Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Maxine McClean, said the WTO should agree to more special trade provisions for Barbados and other small, vulnerable economies to ensure equal opportunity for them in international trade.
“As a member of the WTO, Barbados, like all CARICOM countries, fully subscribes to the principle of special and differential treatment for developing countries, but we do not consider that this is enough . . . . We strongly believe that there is a further case to be made for countries like ours, small, vulnerable economies,” she said.
“We have begun to achieve some success in this area. A number of special provisions for small economies have been taken into consideration in the various draft documents on which agreement is very slowly being reached in the current multilateral negotiations within the WTO.”
At the most recent ministerial held in Bali in December last year, it was recognised that the need for special and differential treatment for Barbados and others was still necessary two decades after the WTO was established.
With many beneficiaries of this policy still reeling from the effects of the global economic recession and other challenges, indications are that this regime will be around for some time.