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Davos Ministers Optimistic on Trade

Ministers from World Trade Organization countries meeting in Davos, Switzerland, are expressing cautious optimism that they can move forward in trade talks.

The ministers, from roughly 20 WTO countries, say they have agreed to a new method of working together to resolve stand-offs over agriculture and several other areas that threaten to derail trade talks. WTO members are hoping to conclude the current trade talks, called the Doha Round, by the end of 2006.

At a session on trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos, WTO head Pascal Lamy said participating countries are finally piecing together what he called a picture of the end game.

"It is starting to happen," said Lamy. "And the realization that we only have one year to put together the world trading system which will succeed for the next 10 years the one we put together 10 years ago. I think they now all share this. Including the major actors of this round, which are developing countries. And I can tell you that's a big difference with what happened 10 years ago."

That cautiously positive forecast was echoed by several officials, including U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman. Portman said developing countries could only gain from lowering trade barriers.

"People can quibble with statistics, but it seems to me there is no question - certainly in Davos this week - that those economies that have embraced more open trade have done better," said Portman. "In the 1990s, [you] could could point to Chile or South Korea. You could also point more recently to India and Brazil. And China."

But Ghana's Trade Minister Alan Kyerematen pointed out that some developing countries are still concerned about the effect trade liberalization will have on them. Poorer countries want richer ones to further reduce import tariffs and other barriers to trade.

"However, beyond that, there is also a sense that if we can harvest early successes in all the negotiating area, then in a sense we will be addressing the development paradigm," said Kyerematen.

WTO members have set an April 30 deadline for agreeing on precise ways to cut trade barriers. Some non-governmental organizations warn that rushing to meet that deadline would hurt the interests of developing countries. Ministers from six major WTO member nations are scheduled to meet for further talks in Geneva in early March.