Education International
Education International

EI: Education is not a tradable commodity

published 10 December 2013 updated 13 December 2013

EI has joined the international trade union movement in criticizing a new agreement on global trade rules that is unbalanced and threatens to put new pressures on public services like health care and education.

Trade ministers from the 159-member countries of the World Trade Organisation managed to salvage a last minute deal during their 4-day conference in Bali, Indonesia after a bitter dispute over food security had threatened to scuttle talks.

India had insisted that trade rules must recognize the right of countries to subsidize some agricultural products so they can build public stockpiles in order to prevent food shortages. The United States and other developed countries opposed these demands, arguing the subsidies distorted trade by pricing out their exports. This is despite the fact that a previous commitment from the U.S. to end its export subsidies and cotton production subsidies has yet to be implemented.

In the end, a compromise was reached following intensive negotiations that includes a temporary reprieve for food security programs, but no permanent solution.

“The failure to reach an agreement that recognizes the right of governments to safeguard the right to food for their citizens is a major disappointment,” said EI’s general secretary Fred Van Leeuwen. “It’s a real failure of the WTO that members could not have agreed upon a lasting solution for what is the most important issue for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.”

In a joint statement released following the Bali conference, EI, the International Trade Union Confederation, and Public Services International said that deal shows that the WTO “continues to be unable to craft trade policies that serve development.”

The statement concludes that the deal is unbalanced because while the issue of food security remains unresolved, developing countries will be required to adopt new measures to ease customs procedures and speed up the movement of goods across their borders.

“The binding commitments of the trade facilitation deal will require some of the poorest countries in the world to invest in expensive ports, customs processes and machinery to facilitate developed world imports,” the trade union statement says. “[This] will require redirection of scarce government resources away from desperately needed health, education and public infrastructure such as water and energy.”

The Bali package represents the first global deal reached under the WTO since its founding in 1994 and could breathe new life into the 12-year old Doha Round of trade talks that have been at an impasse since 2008.

A post-Bali agenda could see some of the more contentious issues of the round back at the negotiating table, including services liberalization that could have an impact on the education sector, says EI’s trade consultant David Robinson.

“There will be renewed pressure from major developed economies to build on the Bali package and put their issues first and foremost on the agenda,” Robinson notes. “A deal on services is their key priority.”

A number of WTO members have already begun ambitious talks to negotiate a Trade in International Services Agreement (TISA) that intends to dramatically expand and broaden the number of service sectors covered by commercial trade rules. EI has consistently expressed its opposition to the inclusion of education services in trade deals to prevent further privatization and commercialisation.

During the Bali Ministerial, an EI delegation met with ministers and officials from a number of countries including the European Union, United States, Argentina, India, Taiwan, Italy, and South Africa to argue for a broad exclusion of education from TISA and other agreements.