It is good to have a hobbyhorse. Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed has one — it is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting that will be held in Nairobi in December.
About a month ago I was in the room in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa’s financial district, and heard her speak twice.
She was wooing the room, taking the opportunity to slip in the Nairobi WTO and pitching it as Africa’s, not Kenya’s, and why it was necessary for it to succeed.
In between the breaks, she worked the crowd. Shaking hands, posing for selfies, exchanging business cards. Fellows spoke well of her.
On Tuesday, in the Daily Nation, she was back on message, urging the G7 countries to give direction: “We must leave confrontation behind and work together respectfully and with sensitivity."
“The G7 can, therefore, give guidance that would shape the outcome of the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference. As the leading economies, you have a special responsibility to make the Nairobi forum a (success),” she told an informal meeting of G7 trade ministers in Istanbul, the Daily Nation reported.
Uganda’s chicken farmers and sugar companies might tell you that they do not think Kenya is the great free trading nation it professes to be, and one might ask if a breakthrough WTO will put more food on the table of East Africans.
But that would be missing the point. That is because the success of the WTO is an end in itself. And someone suggested, if the outcomes from the Nairobi meeting are outstanding, the amount of publicity that Kenya would get from rosy references to the “Nairobi Round” of talks over the coming years will be more advertising than all the money in Kenya can ever buy.
One of the most reported WTO series was launched with the Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, in 2001. It came to be known as the “Doha Round” and continued in other places for the next 10-plus years.
Among the things the Doha Round agreed was a reduction in trade costs and cutting red tape in customs procedures.
Most people really cannot figure out the fine minutiae of these complex WTO agreements, but most have heard about the “Doha Round”. Before Qatar had Al Jazeera, the big thing it had was the “Doha Round”.
So, if you are at a cocktail somewhere in Gigiri and well-travelled trade diplomats and NGO activists start talking about the world trade order and you want to fake knowledge of global issues, just drop the “Doha Round” and hurry off quickly to fill up your glass. You will make an impression.
Generally, in this business, you want to avoid being associated with failure. I am sure that, knowing what it knows now, if Denmark had to hold the 2009 climate summit (or COP15 because it was the 15th session of the series) again, it would say no.
Countries like Sweden called the outcome of COP15 a “disaster”, and though Denmark cannot be blamed for the dismal results, in the popular imagination it is somehow at fault.
It is the same reason the 2012 London Olympics will probably be remembered more than Beijing 2008, though it was less grand. No people were run out of their homes to make room for venues and there was an abundance of records and firsts, including the fact that the Games were the first at which every sport had female competitors. And it was well organised.
So come December, the world will be watching Nairobi. If the WTO meeting ends in chaos and with no deals, you can expect to read about “in the end, it was impossible to reach agreement in Africa’s sweltering heat”.
If there is organisational snafu, there will be stuff about “evidence that the Africa rising story is overhyped was in full display at the WTO meeting in Nairobi, the failure to have delegates’ badges ready symptomatic of the problems the continent’s governments have in managing their own states”.
In short, it is worthwhile to have a good WTO deal. If not, gun for an A grade in organisation (that might mean a gala night with Sauti Sol on stage). But above all, get some very good headlines. No need to try and lecture Ms Mohamed. Clearly, she knows that.
The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]