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Notes from the Big Show

By Gawain Kripke

Welcome to Hong Kong! Government ministers from more than 140 countries, hundreds of journalists, thousands of lobbyists, and uncounted numbers of farmers, students, and trade justice activists, are convening on this city for the 6th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization.

Big international meetings like this are huge undertakings and almost always take on a feeling of a many-ringed circus. There are many side shows and a dizzying array of strange and interesting events.

But at the center of it all, remains an important focus: the world's governments have come together to negotiate trade rules. Rich countries and poor countries, big and small, have gathered to see if they can hammer out a new global trade agreement.

This "round" of negotiations was launched four years ago in Doha, Qatar—hence it's called the "Doha Round." The explicit purpose of the negotiations was to help developing countries gain more from the global trading system. Currently, trade is dominated by rich countries. Less than 20 percent of the world's population captures 80 percent of the world's trade. The poorest countries get the least.

Oxfam's mission in Hong Kong is to make sure that the needs of poor people are heard, and that the negotiations reform fundamental inequities in the rules. My job is to try to lobby US officials, talk to US media, and coordinate with our friends from other organizations and activist groups. It’s a lot to manage.

Luckily for me, we have good hosts. Oxfam Hong Kong is doing an extraordinarily good job. As one of the most prominent nonprofit groups in Hong Kong—in fact in all of China—they have a very important role. They are taking the message of Make Trade Fair to the streets of Hong Kong, talking to citizens, teaching, and listening. They have even taken out billboard space on Hong Kong's sparkling subway system

Today we are learning that negotiators are preparing a "development package" of agreements that would help the poorest countries. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, these countries really need help. On the other hand, the negotiation will be a failure for development if rich countries can package some small concessions and sell it, rather than undertaking a much deeper reform, particularly of agriculture trade rules. More on that next time.

Must go to bed now. Tomorrow we're expecting to see Oxfam's familiar "big heads"—gigantic fiberglass masks of the leaders of the eight richest countries in the world—doing a fun stunt with some surprise celebrity guests. Also the trade justice movement will stage a large rally and march through the streets of Hong Kong. The negotiations will formally start. And I'll be speaking on a panel on food aid. So the show begins...