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Youth Are Building Presence Inside WTO Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Emily Freeburg, Jan 13, 2006
Child & Youth Rights , Poverty , Human Rights   Opinions
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Youth Are Building Presence Inside WTO 'Six years ago, my first truly global experience came to my hometown. I was on the streets in 1999 when the WTO came to Seattle. In December, I traveled to Hong Kong to be part of a team of young people 'on the inside' of the WTO.'

Like much of civil society, youth participation at the World Trade Organization doesn't have a long history. In fact, its history is only a few weeks old. But at the 6th Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong (WTO 6), more than a dozen young people from all over the world attended the meeting with official accreditation, a forum previously exclusive to government negotiators. Hundreds more protested, with demonstrations at nearby Victoria Park, while others held a youth information booth at the fair trade center nearby.

Most young people know little about the World Trade Organization, and with the number of protests growing each year, the WTO has come to stand for everything negative about globalization, from exploitation of workers, outsourced jobs and overconsumption, to cultural change and environmental degradation. This year, instead of their usual posts at a nearby hotel, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were allowed into the meeting, where many followed each step of the negotiations.

Why Young People and Trade?

"Young people need to know about trade issues, because they are the ones that are going to suffer from these decisions," said Sudyumna Dahal, 25, from the organization Youth Initiative in Nepal.

In September, 'Sudy' went to Cambodia to participate in a program with Oxfam International Youth Parliament (IYP). After learning about trade and completing a Trade Action Plan at the workshop, he went back to Nepal and held awareness workshops for youth.

Another young person with Oxfam IYP, Irene Banda, 22, from Zambia, attended the training in Cambodia, and then went home to collect more than 1.3 million signatures from Zambian farmers. Now attending the global meeting, her perspective has broadened. "Before I came here, I cared about the effects WTO had on Zambian farmers; now I see it affects some countries way worse."

Because Irene prepared for the meeting beforehand, working with community groups and educating herself on the issues, she brings legitimacy to her meetings in Hong Kong with government delegations and other NGOs. When she returns home, Irene will debrief her communities about what happened and continue to watch the moves of her government, working with other citizens to hold the state accountable.

Do Youth Views Have Impact?

Several youth NGOs have been able to influence their country's negotiators. Youth organizations in Norway lobbied the Norwegian government for months leading up to the Ministerial, urging them not to require developing countries to liberalize public services in exchange for other trade benefits.

Just two weeks before the Ministerial, the Norwegian government changed its position, partly due to the persistent pressure from the youth organizations. Since Norway, a rich country independent from the European Union, changed its position, many poor countries were better able to take a similar position.

A group from Canada, "Youth Inside," met several times with their Canadian delegation, which they say welcomed their critique of the WTO. The interaction so impressed the Minister of International Trade that he suggested the creation of a Youth Advisory Council to his office. "I really feel that there needs to be a youth presence [at the WTO]. NGOs don't have as much influence as I've seen in other meetings," said Elissa Smith, 20. "Their presence is incapacitated, which is not cool since the WTO affects everything."

One-fifth of global carbon emissions comes from the transportation of goods -- with the amount of transportation expected to increase 300 percent in the next 20 years. Elissa believes global trade has the potential to lift millions of people out of extreme poverty, but that trade rules and policies are systematically skewed toward wealthy business interests. She thinks that trade rules rooted on principles of sustainable development, food security, right to education, clean water and labor standards are possible.

For Elissa, the daughter of five generations of farmers, trade is personal. "The corner store doesn't stock my father's fruit anymore. Instead it sells apples from New Zealand because they are cheaper to grow and fly around the world. I remember one summer when the cherries were left to rot on the trees because Chinese cherries were so cheap that my father couldn't afford to pick them. I want to be a farmer like my great, great, great grandfather but I have been forced to the city to find work."

Young People Must Lead the Way Forward

Just because the issues are complex and contentious, it doesn't mean young people should not attend the WTO. Like anyone else, young people can prepare for the meeting beforehand, and contribute where their knowledge and passion lies, whether it is in environment, education or agriculture.

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