Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Kenya believe it? A recap of my WTO MC10 experience

Well, it’s certainly been a crazy few weeks err, month of travels! Thankfully things are winding down for the holiday season, even though my days off will be spent adventuring around Uganda with one of our fellow interns stationed in Kenya. Anyway, I’m happy to report we have returned safely, after a long overnight 14-hour bus ride, which looking back on it, could have gone horribly, horribly wrong…

This time, work took me – and thankfully for Aaron, he as well – to Nairobi. The purpose? We were delegates at the WTO Ministerial Conference, known also as MC10 (because it’s the tenth WTO conference since 1996). The current round is the sixth one following the 2001 Doha Conference, which focused on two main issues: agriculture, and “topics of interest to developing countries.” Two agreements came from this round of talks, but nothing was actually solved, so to speak. Thus, Nairobi was a continuation of the Doha Round.

Sadly, it didn’t, and still doesn’t, seem to be a topic found on mass media sites, which is odd, given the Conference’s importance on all things world trade! This isn’t even an area I’m interested or knowledgeable in, and yet even I can recognize its significance! But, it’s particularly interesting because many believed this would be the concluding chapter* of the Doha series of discussions. The US, appears to be especially eager to end things, but not in a resolution sort of way, more so in a ‘let’s drop it and move on to things that will continue to benefit us’ sort of way… Basically, many of the Global South countries are pushing for better, more equitable policies for them – and rightfully so – while the US is trying hard to ensure this doesn’t happen, while instead wanting to expand the WTO, giving them (the US) even greater power. Now, before I move on and actually share my experience, I just want to make it clear, that this is what we’ve heard on the ground. Other than that, I have been informed that climate change, the environment in general, and the SDGs have made it into the discussions each day… that has to be a step in the right direction, right?!

Let’s back up a bit. We were picked up at the delightful hour of 5:52am on the Sunday before the conference. I consider myself a morning person, but even for me, that one was rough… especially since in knowing we had (what we thought would be) a 12-hour bus ride ahead of us, I passed on my VERY crucial morning brew! We boarded the 6:30am bus, and soon were out of the city and enroute for Nairobi**.

If you recall, I stated that the trip through rural Uganda was stunning. I don’t want to discount the beauty of my host-country, but let me tell you, passing through the largest tea estate in East Africa with the sunshine highlighting the acres and acres of land is something that just can’t be described. It’s massive. Then, just a ways down the road, seeing something equally, if not more beautiful catch your eye – the actual Rift Valley! Sorry folks, there are no pictures to share with you… there wasn’t enough time to take it all in and have my brain emit the message to dig out my camera and snap a few unclear, garbled shots. Needless to say, the hours we drove during daytime were anything but boring. By nightfall, though, it just became uncomfortable… There’s only so long one can just sit!

The hotel we stayed in was kind of sketchy, as was the neighbourhood in which it was situated. But, when you’ve had a long travel, even the noise of the pounding bass streaming from the club just a floor below you finds a way of soothing you to sleep!

Our first full day in Nairobi consisted of checking in/picking up our ID badge, which was most definitely one of the most exciting moments of the week, as it made it all seem official. Plus, it gave me an excuse to harass Aaron about his cheesy headshot! Then we made out way to an NGO planning meeting, which we thought was going to be a productive let’s make a game plan so we don’t sound like a bunch of lunatics session, but ended up pretty much being a we all sound like lunatics*** meeting. This session was the moment that I realized that a career in advocacy is definitely not for me - at least at this level. There was no presence of critical thinking, not coherent argument, just semi-extremism. But, it provided us with a tasty lunch, so it wasn’t all bad! Later we broke from that group and made out way to the NGO Centre at the ‘main-stage’ of the Conference.

Day two found us at another extremist, let’s rally the troops and get everyone excited meeting, followed by a protest. Neither of these were a good time for this girl. This was partly because I don’t understand the trade jargon used in most of the speeches, but also because lack of intelligent conversation is just not something I enjoy or relate to. I’m not saying that if you aren’t a PhD level of intelligence than I don’t have time for you. But if you aren’t thinking about what you’re saying or the actions that those statements are projecting, than it defeats the purpose of the message you’re trying to get across, and as a result has you taken far less seriously. By the same token, holding a protest down a fairly abandoned street, where no one of interest or ability to make changes is found, is not the most useful thing. I’m not a huge supporter of protests in general (meaning, I’m 99% against them), but if you’re going to do so, have it be organized and at the attention of those you’re trying to gain notice from.

A shot of the protest

But thankfully, the end of day two provided a little insight into something more my style – a symposium on trade and development, affectionately known as the Trade and Development Symposium, held at the Hilton Hotel. This made our final two days far more intellectually stimulating, participatory, and just overall productive!

So, day three began with a meeting introducing a new tool for advocating on investment, put on by our sponsoring organization SEATINI and their partner, and co-author of the tool, Traidcraft. Given that I have little (i.e. no) background in trade, I found this session really interesting. I actually learned something! And, once again, was rewarded with a delicious lunch…including blue cheese, which I know I’m allergic to, and thus should be avoiding, but… what’s a girl to do?!

Afterwards we broke off on our own and attended several sessions at the Hilton. I selected three on Food Security. The third session, however, was where I delivered my one thing that scares me a day for the day – I asked a question in a room full of knowledgeable people on a subject matter I’m not too familiar with… and received no response or even acknowledgement. This is the very thing I was referencing in my previous post on the Climate Change talks. While my question was related to the topic of the session, it wasn’t directly so. It was a new-ish topic, that I know I need to continue to ask, because it’s not only important to my work here in Uganda, but also the work I want to be focusing on even after my placement is up in April. And despite the question not being addressed, I was really proud of myself! Even my boss gave me a pat on the back and offered some words of encouragement!

Day four, our final day in Nairobi, was a mixture of sessions at the Symposium and a quick touristy walk around the city. I attended two sessions, one on conservation and tourism in Africa related to trade – particularly illegal trade – and the other on the WTO Agenda in relation to the SDGs… as in what should a few of the panellists*** bring with them into the negotiations later that day. The session on conservation was so interesting and disheartening at the same time. From an intellectual standpoint, the information and discussion made me feel the familiar comfort of many of the ESST courses during my time at Acadia University. The one on the SDGs, however, meant I had another opportunity to ask my question from the previous day – how do we address the lack of involvement/interest of youth in agriculture, and what are the implications for trade and food security as a result? This time, although one panellist obviously avoided responding, it was addressed by two of the other panellists – one currently working on this very issue in Ghana, and the other the only female panellist, who happened to also be directly involved with the negotiations. And while they didn’t really give me anything new in their answers, I was just pleased to have the very troubling trend discussed, even if only for a minute or two.

Once these sessions concluded, Aaron and I took to the ‘mean’ streets of Nairobi. Now, I’m semi light-heartedly saying that. For the most part touring around wasn’t that bad. BUT most of the locals we spoke to informed us, and other delegates, to be careful when walking around. My personal favourite quote was from a government official or ambassador (I can’t remember which) who told us “Kenyans are a friendly bunch…who sometimes like to displace you of your stuff.” I mean, I don’t know that I’d use that as your tourist slogan, but I did get a little chuckle out of it! Needless to say, we were fine!

KICC - one of the most recognizable sites in Kenya,
but also where the negotiations took place.
Just outside of the KICC
Inside the Official Conference Grounds
Our last few hours in Nairobi were spent winding down, before heading off to the bus stop and preparing for the long trip ahead (aka purchasing road trip snacks!). This time, was a bit shorter, at least, but was a bit less comfortable, which is interesting given the bus on the way to Kenya was severely lacking both shocks and breaks! Why was it uncomfortable, you ask? Well, for me, I was sitting next to an unknown sir, who felt it acceptable to semi-spoon me while he slept. This would have been slightly okay had he not smelled of an awkward and unwanted combination of urine, old man sweat*****, and mould. Thankfully though, he was only travelling as far as the border, so I had the row of seats to myself for the remainder of the trip, meaning I was able to get a few uninterrupted hours of sleep before arriving back in Kampala.

I have to say, our return to Kampala made me realize just how much this city has grown on me. It felt so good to be home! It felt even better to be greeted by one of our boda drivers (with a hug, might I add) at the bus station, the other at the top of our road when we arrived, and by the delightful smile and surprise hug from our building security guy! I think Aaron may have felt a little left out of the love-fest I was receiving, but I was loving every minute of it! 

The overall experience in Kenya, was pretty amazing. I learned a lot, met some great people, and have come away with a better understanding of where I do and do not want my career path to go. Even though I didn't understand much of the discussions taking place over the first two days, I'm really thankful for this experience.

And that, my friends, is the tale of that time I was “important” once and “spoke” at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi. For more information on the conference, check out the WTO's Conference website

I should also note that at the same time we were wandering the streets of the city, I should have been in Manchester crossing the stage at my Masters graduation. I’m not sad I missed it, but I’m sure sorry I wasn’t surrounded, once again, by those amazing people that I now thankfully get to call my friends! A big congrats to my fellow IDPMers for such a momentous achievement! Miss you all lots and I hope to see many of you in my travels over the next year or in Canada somewhere down the line in the hopefully not-so-distant future!

Now to catch up on some much needed sleep…

-the Orange Canadian

*Some reports appear to indicate that this as been the case, while others are claiming it's still uncertain if a concluding deal has happened...
**My brother informs me that this was the best text ever… 
***To be fair, not everyone in that room was of that mindset. I actually met some really great folks in there!
****This session is where I gained some of the inside knowledge about the environment being a daily focus of the negotiations.
*****Not exactly sure what ‘old man sweat’ smells like, and I would like to formally apologize to any sweaty old men that I may have offended.

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