Africa: Nairobi Trade Talks Made History – Kenya Foreign Minister

At the start of 2015, the prospects for a successful outcome for the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Nairobi were dim. The pundits were forecasting failure. But WTO member countries proved them wrong and we succeeded.

We reversed the fortunes of the WTO and placed the organization it on a clear trajectory for success. There is more work to be done but in Nairobi we saw a sea change.

The Nairobi conference was neither ceremonial, nor was it convened to endorse a predetermined outcome. It was a negotiating conference, to which deadlocked and unresolved issues were forwarded.

As we started the negotiations, the prospects were daunting. Some observers publicly declared that the omens for resolving the main issues around the Doha Declaration on trade were not good. Some even urged WTO members to “confront the prospect of definitive failure”. But members were undeterred.

We saw a sea change in Nairobi – reinvigoration of the WTO.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta provided leadership in his message to the membership by calling for a strengthened, relevant WTO, with a successful outcome solving global problems and contributing to recovery and growth in the global economy.

As the first African to chair a WTO Ministerial Conference, I felt like the metaphorical Atlas,carrying the weight of not only the world, but the responsibility of how the talks would impact Africa, other parts of the developing world and the global economy.

During the countdown to the meeting, I experienced foreboding and sleepless nights as well as hope and determination to ensure a roaring African success. Advised on the probability there would be no successful outcome, several ministers from other nations, friends of Kenya, suggested we might have to issue a “chairperson’s statement”, which in WTO parlance is a positive way of accepting failure. Their objective was to ensure that Kenya would not carry alone the cross of another failed WTO ministerial conference.

But Kenya was clear from the beginning that Nairobi would be successful and that I would not issue such a statement. I was dead set against writing an epitaph. It had to be all or nothing. It had also become increasingly clear that Nairobi provided the unique opportunity needed for the renewal and reinvigoration of the WTO, an organization that we all passionately believe in.

Failure was not an option – neither for Kenya nor for the entire African Union, and President Kenyatta was clear on this. The stalemates and inertia of the past had to be broken, the jinx of no or minimum outcomes had to be banished, and it had be executed in Africa, the so-called weakest link in the rules-based based multilateral trading system.


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Chief negotiators came to Nairobi without revealing their bottom lines, largely restrained by domestic factors and pressures. The stakes could not have been higher as we faced issues ranging from clinching an elusive Information Technology Agreement to getting anything agreed on agriculture, as well as the associated questions around buying food stocks to ensure food security and a deal for the “C4” countries – the cotton-growing nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, to the equally challenging task of a package for the world’s least-developed countries (LDCs), or an acceptable future work programme for the WTO.

Failure was not an option – for Kenya or the African Union

And then there was the larger historic question of whether to reaffirm or not to reaffirm the Doha Round.It all seemed impossible.

But we rose to the occasion, designed a strategy and stuck to it with the assistance of a core group of ministers, friends of the chairperson and WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo. We spared no effort, nor wasted time. We had minimal if any sleep and minimal nourishment. For four days and three nights we negotiated and kept the entire membership informed and involved. There were no gaps. We could not afford them.

The systemic support from the full spectrum of members in different formats and configurations was indispensable, in the absence of which failure would have been certain. Their contributions were the litmus test of the premium they attach to the centrality of the WTO in global rule-making. Doubts and questions about the superiority of the WTO in setting the bar for trade rules were dissipated.

So what was achieved in Nairobi?

The meeting produced six ministerial decisions on agriculture, cotton and issues related to least-developed countries.

First, a major breakthrough was reached in agriculture, with the immediate outlawing of export subsidies in developed economies and in developing countries by 2018 and in LDCs by 2023. Export credit and food aid were also disciplined. This is a positive result for countries that rely heavily on agriculture for income and jobs. It has the potential of lifting countless smallholder farmers out of poverty. That is why the deal on agriculture was so widely popular and supported.

Second, another breakthrough, associated with agriculture but standing alone in its significance for Africa, was achieved on cotton, for long a question that had divided the membership. The Nairobi package acknowledges reforms by members in their domestic policy and regulations on cotton and underscores the scope for further reforms. The actual breakthrough was the decision by ministers that export subsidies should be prohibited immediately by developed members and at a later date by developing countries.

Third, also associated with agriculture, the Nairobi package reaffirmed the Bali decision on public stockholding for food security purposes, which gives protection from challenges under trading rules to governments which buy stocks of food from their farmers to maintain food security in their countries.

Six ministerial decisions: export subsidies, cotton subsidies, food stockholding, IT tarriffs, exports by LDCs and membership for Afghanistan & Liberia

Fourth, in another significant outcome, members representing major exporters of IT products agreed, in the Information Technology Agreement, on a timetable for eliminating tariffs on various products, with all WTO members set to enjoy duty-free access to the markets of members eliminating the tariffs. Consequently, two-thirds of tariff lines will be fully eliminated by July 1 this year, with total elimination expected over three years. The agreement is a huge plus for many countries in Africa active in the sector.

The fifth outcome of significance is for LDCs. The Nairobi package contains decisions of specific benefit to LDCs such as enhanced preferential rules of origin and preferential treatment for LDC service providers. The conference decided on the facilitation of opportunities for LDC to export goods to developed and developing countries pursuant to unilateral preferences.

No less important, Nairobi approved the terms and conditions of membership of Afghanistan and Liberia, two least-developed countries.

We loosened the knot on the systemic question of the relevance of the WTO regarding the consideration of new issues. It is hugely significant that we accepted that some WTO members may wish to raise other negotiating issues in the WTO. However, coupled to this recognition was the decision that a consensus would be required before the launch of these negotiations. This formulation protects all interests and is an important step forward for the institution.

Finally, substantively, ministers confronted head-on the major negotiating question of whether the Doha Round of talks to achieve a comprehensive international trade deal should continue. The question was whether to reaffirm that mandate or not. There was an honest division among the members. As in all negotiating situations, where positions are unbridgeable the polar positions were acknowledged in the Nairobi Declaration.

As the chairperson of the 10th ministerial conference, I believe this outcome was not fatal for the WTO, as embodied in the expression “reasonable individuals can disagree”. The successful results from Nairobi were not an end point – rather, the direction of the WTO has been reset and is now pointed in the right direction. We must now set ourselves to the huge task ahead of us.

Coming on the heels of successful climate talks at COP 21 in Paris, the WTO meeting in Nairobi has demonstrated the value and centrality of a multilateral approach to facing the world’s challenges. We made history.

Ambassador Mohamed is Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade and was the Chairperson of the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference.

For comprehensive coverage of the Nairobi Ministerial, see: BRIEFING: WTO-MC10 Kenya


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