Located in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international body with 153 member nations whose stated objectives include providing a forum for trade negotiations, handling trade disputes, and monitoring trade policies. The WTO was established in 1995 to succeed the post-World War II General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, itself an international agreement and organization designed to reduce barriers to international trade.
The ministers representing each of the 153 members of the WTO meet as an entire group at least once every two years in a ministerial conference. During these conferences, trade disputes are settled and decisions made, not by vote but by consensus, a method that involves a series of negotiations. The method of decision by consensus has been one criticism of the WTO for favoring nations with more bargaining power.
The most recent round of WTO negotiations began in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, in 2001 and has been ongoing since then. The focus of the Doha Round has been to help poor countries with the opening of agricultural and trade markets. Though it was scheduled to be concluded in four years, as of 2009 an agreement still had not been reached, though progress has been made towards a global trade agreement that opens the markets of the world’s most industrialized countries to the agricultural goods of poorer countries. The sticking points of the negotiations are complex, though one disagreement between India and the United States concerns a mechanism designed to protect poor farmers by imposing a tax on the imports of certain agricultural products.
Failure to complete the Doha Round in 2005 is said to have caused the lapse in the two-year schedule of WTO ministerial meetings, and a meeting of the WTO ministers is now scheduled for November 2009, the theme of which is "The WTO, the Multilateral Trading System and the Current Global Economic Environment." Doha Round negotiations have, since 2005, continued outside the regularly scheduled ministerial conference and will similarly proceed. Successful completion of the Doha Round Agenda, according to this June 2009 Reuter's article, "is estimated to be worth $150 billion in the global economy and considered even more important now that the world is facing its worst economic crisis in decades."
While the stated goal of promoting free trade is admirable, its application by the WTO has given rise to numerous criticisms. Critics contend that the organization has favored wealthy and influential nations to the detriment of the developing countries it purports to help; ignored environmental and labor concerns in favor of trade issues; and employed an ineffectual and exclusive decision-making process.