Cancúnblog: from Mexico to the world

Caspar Henderson
13 October 2003

An edited selection of the lively discussion around Cancún from our forum - featuring George Monbiot, Roger Scruton, Paul Kingsnorth and many others - is now available to subscribers who can download the document by clicking on the green arrow above. If you are not a subscriber become one to make sure you have access to all the subject specific edited guides we will be producing.

Making sense of international trade policy can be a daunting business. The host of acronyms associated with it – WTO, GATT, RTA, LDC, FDI – makes it seem dry and academic; but few things arouse such strong passions. There is good reason for this. The convenient but forbidding shorthand is also the outward form both for large ideas (sovereignty and justice, security and prosperity) and for pressing individual questions: who gets to decide my fate, am I being treated fairly, do I have enough to feed my family?

openDemocracy’s innovative Cancúnblog dialogue provides a readable introduction to the abstract principles and the human realities that alike lie behind the world of trading blocs and summit conferences.


The gathering of the world’s trade ministers at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Cancún, Mexico in September 2003 was billed as a crucial step in what is known as the Doha Development Round. These talks, many argued, presented an opportunity for Europe and the United States, the world’s two trade superpowers, to move more decisively to reduce subsidies, as a way to open their own markets to producers from the developing world.

A key question was: what would these two huge trading blocs demand, and receive, from developing countries in exchange? The actual result of Cancún was a spectacular collapse of the negotiations which puts a question mark over the future of both the Doha round and the WTO in general. Cancúnblog focuses on the impact of this collapse on the world’s poorest, on the WTO and on the future of global justice.


In the spirit of encouraging diversity in online debate, openDemocracy invited Katharine Ainger, co-editor of the New Internationalist and a writer on globalisation, to report from Cancún and post her comments directly into our discussion forums. A vivid exchange ensued among our members; Cancúnblog represents the edited highlights of this unique hybrid between a ‘blog’ and a discussion forum.

The debate

Participants in the dialogue range from the secretary-general of the International Chamber of Commerce (Maria Livanos Cattaui), who points to what she argues are the real, solid achievements of a multilateral trading regime; to impassioned pleas for rolling back the power of the WTO and an increase in farmer or national sovereignty – made respectively by a radical young writer (Paul Kingsnorth) and a distinguished conservative philosopher (Roger Scruton).

But what is most remarkable about Cancúnblog, and why it could only have happened on the internet, is that these are the stirrings of a real-time global conversation. Readers are swept along by the power of different arguments, alternately convinced for a moment by altogether contrary positions. Disputants cannot resist coming back to answer their critics – as evidenced by the multiple postings and the short interval between critique and response.

Cancúnblog is partly a guide to the issues in international trade – something I also try to offer in my Globolog column – and partly a fascinating insight into the passion of the debate. It provides intellectual tools for the perplexed but sceptical, an excellent teaching tool, and a vibrant read.

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