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Africa

African leaders push for WTO pact but experts are skeptical

Mixed expectations and goals are emerging as the WTO opens its first ministerial conference in Africa in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. African ministers are pushing for major changes to benefit developing countries.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta opened the ministerial World Trade Organization (WTO) discussions calling the gathering "historic and crucial."

"This conference will boost trade and investment, create employment and ultimately contribute to poverty eradication," he said in a welcome message.

He also stressed the need for African countries to use the meeting as a springboard to diversify their economies.

"National, regional and multilateral policy choices that we make will matter," Kenyatta said. "The choices and positions we take will have consequences."

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, addressed participants and proposed that less developed counties should be supported to boost their trade and achieve sustainable development goals. Liberia is set to become a member of the WTO this week.

“We are optimistic that this council meeting is poised to impact local trade, strengthen multilateral trading system, and ensure that the less developed nations of the world are given a better deal by the removal of barriers which will foster a larger percentage of global trade,” she said.

A long process

This current round of negotiations, known as the Doha round, has been going on for 14 years. The original goals were to liberalize global trade between developed and developing countries by reducing subsidies, removing customs barriers and opening markets to all members.

However there are large rifts between developed countries like the United States and the European Union and big emerging economies like China and India, which have turned into rivals.

Kenia WTO meeting in Nairobi

Experts say a final agreement is unlikely to materialize this week

The US and the EU believe that these countries should no longer insist on getting preferential trade conditions that were originally aimed at boosting the development of poor countries. China and India disagree and are asking for negotiations to continue. Developing countries like Kenya and Liberia are pushing for greater access to markets but are largely stuck in the middle of this dispute.

WTO chief Roberto Azevedohas opted for a more optimistic tone.

"I think if we go out of Nairobi with renewed confidence and with a common vision for the future that will be a fundamental achievement," he said.

Challenges remain

A partial deal focused on agriculture export competition and trade development in the world's poorest nations is also possible this week, but experts admit the chances of this are shaky at best.

"It will attempt to deliver on the elusive agreements of the Doha Development Agenda,” the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) think tank said. "However, despite previous efforts, scant progress has been made and a breakthrough at Nairobi seems unlikely."

Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed, who is chairing the conference, has warned that a failure to strike a deal, requiring every member's agreement, would raise questions about the negotiating role of the WTO.

"We will need to either fix it [Doha], agree on a new way of negotiating or maybe agree to remove it," she said.

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