In the backdrop of the ongoing thirteenth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Abu Dhabi, it must be acknowledged that after three decades of its existence, the gains of WTO rules have accrued mainly to the developed countries.

Developed countries, enjoy not just greater privileges in the WTO rules but also greater capacity to set global trade agenda in relentless pursuit of market access.

When a global system produces sub-par results, the international community needs a punching bag for its under-delivery. Often in the WTO, this punching bag has been India. Even WTO’s DG, who is supposed to be an impartial custodian of WTO functioning, recently openly called out India and South Africa on their stance in the Investment Facilitation for Development (IFD) discussions.

A conscious narrative has been established over the years that India blocks negotiations, slowing down new agreements and trade rules.

Contrary to the perception being created over the years, most of the big decisions or areas of non-performance of the WTO have been blocked by specific players with deep, vested commercial interests. Let us look at a few examples.

When Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), was brought under WTO, reluctant developing countries had no option but to sign it, if they wanted access to global trade. However, 25 years on, TRIPS has not moved one inch towards its stated objective of protection and enforcement of intellectual property leading to technology transfer.

Even during the Covid pandemic, the developing countries’ proposal of a limited waiver of TRIPS to facilitate manufacture of vaccines, medicines and medical instruments, was steadfastly blocked at the WTO by Germany, Norway, Switzerland and the UK, who prioritised Big Pharma’s profits over lives and livelihoods.

The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body has been dysfunctional since 2020, because the US has not allowed appointments of judges to the Appellate Body. Global trade disputes are now stacking up without resolution and second level appeals are being filed ‘in the void’.

In November 2020, Least Developed Countries (LDCs), proposed a Ministerial decision at WTO to extend special and differential treatment measures and exemptions, technical assistance and capacity building programmes, and other facilities for a period of 12 years after their graduation to developing country status.

This was followed by a more comprehensive text in December 2022. What remains is a watered-down decision to ‘encourage’ members, to provide LDCs an extension only for duty free quota free exports! The US and the European Union had no hesitation in blocking a smoother transition of poor countries to developing status.

India’s suggestion

India on the other hand, circulated and submitted very specific suggestions for WTO reform, that would support greater participation of smaller developing countries and LDCs. They include incremental changes , including technology adoption, which have brought very significant transformation in WTO’s functioning. Far from blocking WTO work for its own commercial interests India has been a responsible and vocal participant at WTO.

Developed countries have not been able to move ahead on the absurdity of so-called subsidy caps based on 1986-87 staple food and grain prices for public stockholding. This basic requirement of developing countries to feed their poor population has been blocked repeatedly, by rich countries who themselves pay huge subsidies to their farmers. There is no solution in sight and it will be blocked again by rich countries at the ongoing MC 13.

The WTO continues to focus on creating ever harsher disciplines and standstill legislative requirements than introducing greater flexibilities and policy innovations.

Flanking these tactics, the narrative-building industry of these handful of developed members continues to single out India for raising valid questions and seeking to preserve effective and inclusive multilateralism.

The writer is a former IRS officer. Her research interests lie in the trade and environment intersection.