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The march of the suffering

15 December 2005

The lethargy that permeated the first three days of the WTO summit in Hong Kong may at last be lifting. At the halfway stage of the summit, one trade observer said today things here are "on the verge".

Inside the summit, the torpor is being pierced by an increasingly virulent media war and the first serious backroom jostlings. Rob Portman, the trade representative, felt compelled to ask a reporter if he knew what the EU's negotiating strategy was, while Peter Mandelson seems to have passed the end of his acerbic tether.

The one thing that has been pretty much settled is a "development package", a deal that would allow the world's 49 poorest countries duty-free and quota-free access to rich countries' markets. It also includes a fresh dollop of "aid-for-trade" to build export capacities in countries that currently couldn't trade their way out of a paper bag.

The package may not be as altruistic as it seems (if there is one thing totally absent from the savage Green Room politicking, it is altruism). MEPs and delegates from the G90 held an impromptu briefing to warn that the package is being used as a "sweetener" to take the edge off uncompromising demands from the big boys for developing countries to slash their import tariffs on industrial goods and services.

On the streets, the word is that protesters - who have so far sparked only minor scuffles with the small police – will redouble their efforts at the weekend. Today, Asian peasants were on the streets again, marching the Buddhist "march of the suffering". To rhythmic chants of "Junk the WTO", more than 1,000 knelt at intervals to offer prayers to the gods to protect farmers (above). "We have to ask the gods to protect us," said Henry Saragih, general secretary of Via Campesina, "because out governments refuse to."

They are right. What was meant to be a development round is rapidly turning into hardnosed trade negotiation for greater market access. As this stands, the big winners the Doha Development Agenda will be those closest to the ear of governments – the big business lobbies in the US and Europe.

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