Amid protests by anti-globalization activists and after heated negotiations, ministers of the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong have produced a result that few had expected: an agreement to advance global free trade and help poor nations develop their economies.
Ministers worked through the night Saturday before breaking a deadlock that had pitted developing nations against the rich countries and the rich countries against each other.
With time running out, the negotiations became frantic and produced an interim agreement to keep moving toward trade liberalization. In the accord, richer nations pledge to make several concessions to the world's least developed countries, especially in agriculture and market access.
In a speech closing the six days of talks, World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy praised members for taking what he said is an important step toward ensuring that the world's poor benefit from free trade.
"We are tipping the balance in the WTO soundly and steadily in favor of developing countries," said Mr. Lamy.
While the interim deal is described as modest by many delegates and trade experts, it saved the WTO's Hong Kong ministerial conference from total collapse. There had been fears that this meeting, like the ministerial in Cancun, Mexico two years ago, and the Seattle, Washington, meeting in 1999, would end without an agreement. Some analysts had warned that such a collapse in Hong Kong could fatally weaken the WTO's role as the rule-making body for global trade.
While delegates were grateful to have achieved a deal, this one falls far short of the original goal for the Hong Kong meeting. Originally, this conference was to have produced the detailed formulas for cutting tariffs and trade barriers needed to complete what is called the WTO's four-year-old Doha Development Agenda.
The talks had been deadlocked largely over the European Union's refusal to commit to a date for ending farm export subsidies, a key demand of developing nations. After pressure from the United States and developing countries including Brazil, Brussels backed down, saying it did so in the interest of moving the process along.
The United States made a number of concessions, including doubling its trade development assistance for poor countries to $2.7 billion a year. U.S. officials also said they would give free-market access to cotton from Africa.
Tanzania's Communications and Transport Minister Mark Mwandosya said he hopes the agreement will put the nations of Africa on a path to a new beginning.
"We have depended on aid for almost half a century and aid has not let us rid ourselves of poverty," he said. "Let us try trade, and the only indication of how well the rounds will have succeeded will be whether we use trade to eradicate poverty."
Developing nations agreed to continue working to open their markets to manufactured goods and services from wealthier countries. But the accord gave few details on how that will be done.
Even Director-General Lamy acknowledge that much more work needs to be done to complete the Doha agenda. The deal sets a target of next April 30th for the WTO's 149 members to establish more precise formulas for moving the development agenda along.
Not everyone was pleased with the results of the talks. Officials from many aid agencies said the interim deal did too little to help poor countries.
And more than seven thousand activists outside the meeting hall protested that the WTO's trade rules hurt workers and farmers. The activists began the week declaring they wanted to derail the talks and prevent the delegates from reaching any agreement. Despite days of protests, including a brief riot near the conference center on Saturday, the activists did little to interfere with the talks.