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Activists Lobby to Protect Developing Nations at WTO Talks

While thousands of activists protest on the streets of Hong Kong against the World Trade Organization, non-governmental organizations accredited to the conference try to influence trade talks from the inside.

More than 2,700 members of civic organizations are accredited to the trade talks in Hong Kong's convention center.

The Hong Kong ministerial meeting is the first World Trade Organization conference at which activists and trade negotiators are under the same roof. Many groups see this as an improvement, saying it is easier to meet with delegates and put forward their positions.

But, Brett Solomon of the Bangkok group, Focus on the Global South, says the activists are not fully involved in the discussions. "Yes, there is a mutual area, but, of course, one of the key concerns about the WTO is that the process of decision-making lacks transparency and accountability," he says. "There are meetings happening in 'green' rooms, for example, that no members of civil society are ever present (for), and, in fact, a lot of country delegates are never present either. It is very selective and limited."

Activist groups want negotiators to address the development implications of trade, so developing countries do not get a bad deal. They spend their days attending strategy meetings and briefings, writing position papers, talking to the media and trying to influence trade negotiators.

Delegates from developing countries often look to these groups as allies, who help them analyze the proposals of industrialized nations and give advice on how to respond.

The activists also have staged a number of humorous events inside the convention center to grab media attention; for instance, one group singing for the European Union's chief negotiator, Peter Mandelson.

The groups also work closely with activists staging protests outside the convention center. Daniel Mittler of the environmental group Greenpeace says it is equally important to protest loudly outside and to lobby inside the hall. "We have always believed that you have to be outside to make the public aware of issues," he explains, "but you also have to know what's going on in the inside, and take direct influence on the decision-makers. They have to go hand-in-hand, and in Cancun [in 2003], that is what worked well. There were more briefings on the inside between developing countries and there was a mobilization on the outside, and the combination ultimately made a difference."

Several groups feel that many trade negotiators have become more open to constructive criticism and recommendations from outsiders.