It is a strange feeling being back in Doha after more than 10 years during which the world have changed significantly, and at the same time feel that history is repeating itself. Just over ten years ago the world’s trade experts met in Doha. They did so in the shadow if the major failure in Seattle 1999 where the global trading systems collapsed under itself. The world trade system had been a technical issue for decades, but then two world collided. The old world wanted to expand and use the traditional logic of “more trade” in other areas. The new world wanted to ask questions about sustainable development and if “more of the same” was really the best recipe moving forward.
The result was great confusion that exposed the gap between the rhetoric (support for the poor, help environmental sustainability and avoid protectionism) and reality (keep an unfair global trading system that push resources to the west, do anything to protect old business and include only incremental improvements as solutions, and keep an unsustainable farming proactive and food habits in the north). In Doha the “Doha Development Round” was launched without anyone really believing it would do anything significant. Still the machinery kept going for years and only in 2008 most negotiators had also given up. The process is now in some kind of zombie state between totally dead and just a little dead.
The Wikipedia article about the Doha round (that I read for the first time now) is a sad reading that anyone who do not want to feel cynic about the world should avoid. Still a lot of interesting processes was born during this process. Personally I was able to use it both to launch WWF’s BRICS work and develop some ideas/networks regarding the next generation of trade system (whenever it is time to re-think).
Fast forward ten years and we live in the shadow of the major collapse in Copenhagen during the COP15 meeting in 2009. Again the world’s experts that failed to get any results, but this time in the climate area, gather in Doha. This time the atmosphere is even more cynical and pessimistic than during the WTO meeting a decade earlier.
Compared to the WTO meeting the scientists in the climate area are very clear, act now or we might see the end of civilization in a few decades. You would expect such dire warnings to ensure that there were special G20 summits, crisis meetings among the world leading economists, etc. but really nothing is happening. Different reports highlight the possibilities, and dangers, but nothing result in actual action. Even more perplexing is that the climate challenge is still in the hands of the least powerful ministers on the planet, environmental ministers.
So powerless ministers meet at a place that might be the best illustration in the word of the distance between words and action (Doha, Qatar). An oil nation that talks a lot about sustainable development and hire PR agencies to help them do it. They are like a warmer and less PR savvy version of Norway, another country that talks a lot about sustainable development and spread (oil) money at different nice projects around the world (and getting rewards for this). All while doing what they can to open up new oil fields in the arctic and exploring the tar sand that people like James Hansen have called “game over of climate” I should say that Norway is not alone in the hypocrisy, there are even “socially responsible pension funds” (including from Sweden where I live) that invest in the tar sand (ignoring the big picture and trying to make sure that the local pollution should be minimal…!!! What’s next, trying to make sure that the screws on atomic bombs are fair trade and environmentally sustainable?
So while the official meeting here, and especially the consultants trying to make a buck on the broken system, belong to what the Economist (in an unusual sober assessment) calls the “Theatre of the absurd” there are things being born under the surface.
Compared with the WTO system there is an advantage and it is the fact that many of the senior people still remember when the system was created and the actual reason for the current negotiations. This “freshness” of the system, combined with the fact that people like Christiana Figueres still want the process to actually deliver results that matter, make me optimistic. So while the formal system is not delivering much results there are many ideas and initiatives being discuss that hopefully could deliver some significant results in the near future.
To end with some hope I insert an image from a workshop in the Chinese pavilion where we discussed the role of communication (from a Chinese perspective). I used the parallel to the WTO meeting here and noted that it was back then when China entered the WTO. I look forward to a couple of more days with informal meetings and the official presentation of the “global risk and opportunity indicator” on Wednesday.