Wed, 28 Jun 2000

Small countries face big WTO problems

By Nainu Koppel

GENEVA (AP): Renald Clerisme is the first to admit he doesn't always understand what's going on at the World Trade Organization (WTO). How can he, when he can't be everywhere at once?

Clerisme is head of the Haiti delegation to the world's top rule-making body for trade. He's also the entire delegation.

Haiti, with seven million people, is one of many poor countries that lack sufficient representation in an organization whose decisions influence commerce, consumer prices and jobs around the world.

In contrast to rich and powerful nations whose WTO delegates take limousines to work and have staffs of two dozen or more, representatives from places such as Haiti are poorly equipped to fight for trade rights.

Clerisme (pronounced cler-iz-MAY) works from an office above an appliance shop in a shabbier quarter of Geneva about a 1.6 km from WTO's lakeside headquarters.

The Haitian delegation doesn't have a car. So while European Union Ambassador Roderick Abbott and other diplomats ride in chauffeur-driven limousines to work, Clerisme takes the bus.

Clerisme scrambles to attend meetings because the WTO has more than 30 different committees, subcommittees and working groups on its schedule, covering subjects from textiles to patents to the environment. Several meetings may take place at once.

"I feel that I don't understand very fully what is going on. Sometimes they will deal with things I don't know anything about," Clerisme said.

With 137 members, the WTO was created in 1995 on the theory that open markets benefit everyone. Its binding decisions determine how trade is conducted between nations and what restrictions countries can impose to protect their own producers.

The dichotomy in WTO representation can overpower its poorest members.

One key issue is the eagerness of large nations to export products at below-market prices to poorer nations, squeezing domestic businesses. "Dumping" goods can help an exporter corner a local market and may sometimes result from production subsidies by governments.

Clerisme says WTO dispute settlement -- where a country can air a complaint and a panel of experts issues a legally binding judgment -- could help combat rice dumping, a big issue in Haiti.

But Haiti can't use the system because it doesn't have lawyers with enough understanding of international trade law, he says.

Twenty-nine countries -- mostly in African and the Caribbean -- have no permanent representative in Geneva at all.

"The question that arises is how much influence has a small country got over WTO decision-making processes? Very little indeed," said George Williams, who is ambassador for the Caribbean island of Dominica in London and gets to Geneva for about six days a year.

The WTO has sparked riots from Geneva to Seattle and protests in other places in part because of the impact economic globalization has on the world's poor.

For their part, Clerisme and other WTO representatives from developing countries believe free trade can help their people. But the expense of running diplomatic missions in Geneva is a barrier to reaping those benefits.

Western diplomats estimate it costs their governments US$300,000 to keep each of them here.

Japan has the largest delegation, with 21 diplomats and lawyers listed in the WTO directory. The United States has 13. That doesn't include secretaries, technicians and drivers.

The EU is harder to count because it lists only 10 names, but it can muster a much larger force when it includes the staffs of each of the 15 member nations.

The big nations also have major support in their home capitals. The U.S. Trade Representative in Washington has up to 170 staff and a budget of $70 million. That's about two-thirds of Haiti's entire yearly export earnings.

Clerisme says he is reluctant to disagree with other countries if he is unable to understand an issue.

"If they ask you to join a consensus, in the end you finish by accepting something that is not in your interests."

WTO Director-General Mike Moore came into office last September promising to help countries that can't afford to have a permanent delegation in Geneva. Moore, who is from New Zealand, describes himself as a Pacific islander who knows the problems of small, isolated nations.

"Many can't afford to subscribe to all the newspapers," Moore said in an interview. Others can't even pay for fax paper.

Moore spoke on a day when a discussion over whether to admit the West African island nation of Cape Verde to the organization had to be postponed because nobody from the country was able to attend the meeting.

Cape Verde, with a population of 405,000, is classified with Haiti as a "least-developed" country.

Since his arrival, Moore has put in place training courses and "Geneva Weeks" for delegations with little or no regular representation at the WTO. The WTO even tries to provide newspaper clippings to needy missions.

But for Clerisme it's a vicious circle.

If trading opportunities do not improve for his country, it won't be able to afford to send a bigger, better-trained staff to Geneva. And without a bigger staff, he cannot see how trading opportunities will improve.

"I think Mike Moore is doing his best," Clerisme said. "But it comes down to our bilateral and multilateral partners. We will carry this problem with us for a long time."