Experts and government officials weighed the virtues and dangers of globalization during the first day of a public forum on Cambodia’s effort to join the World Trade Organization.
Suos Someth, Cambodia’s permanent representative to the WTO and UN agencies in Geneva, sounded an optimistic early note by commending Cambodia’s 100-member team charged with laying the groundwork for joining the WTO, which promises freer access to world markets in exchange for lowered tariffs and pro-trade policies.
“No longer asked are questions on the usual turbulent past political history of the killing fields and fighting. We have helped to close that grim chapter,” he said.
Suos Someth said that trade would stimulate growth, but only if the government “promote[d] foreign and domestic investments, for which predictability and good governance practice are imperative.”
The WTO would support “a gradual liberalization allowing countries time to make the necessary adjustments and take contingency actions against imports that are particularly damaging,” Sous Someth added.
But Ministry of Economy and Finance official Uy Sambath said WTO officials had already asked Cambodia to lower its import taxes. “That we cannot afford,” he said, because import taxes constitute 73 percent of Cambodia’s tax revenue.
Cambodian tariff rates, at an average at 29 percent, are already low compared to other least-developed countries and it cannot afford to go lower, he said.
Other speakers warned that the WTO is biased toward the richer countries.
“The WTO expects national governments to review domestic legislation…if it turns out to be ‘barriers’ to liberalized trade,” said Norbert von Hofmann of the German development foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. “But on the other side the WTO is not willing to discuss workers’ rights and the impact of trade liberalization on sections of the population in need of protection.”
Charles Santiago, a Malaysia-based trade consultant, charged that “the interests of the WTO are on a collision course with those of developing and less developed countries.”
Developed countries use the WTO to make hypocritical demands, Santiago said. The US and Europe are pressing developed countries to lower tariffs on farm goods while subsidizing their own farmers, he said.
Farms in richer countries have huge advantages due to their size and access to better resources and technology, he said. Dairy cows in the US produce more than 90 liters of milk a day, while Cambodian cows typically produce less than 10 liters, he said.
“The developed countries are clearly using trade rules and agreements to suffocate or control production by the developing world’s producers,” he said.