While the Doha round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks was supposed to focus on development, NGOs complain it has turned into classic market access negotiations.
Ahead of the sixth ministerial conference of the WTO in Hong Kong, Swiss campaigners believe no agreement would be preferable to a bad agreement.
The Hong Kong conference, which gets underway on Tuesday, is not expected to produce anything noteworthy.
This prospect gladdens a sizeable portion of Swiss non-governmental organisations, which are distrustful of the current liberalisation movement underway at the WTO.
More than 30 Swiss NGOs will be present in Hong Kong, having joined forces to form the Swiss Coordination Equitable World Trade. They will take part in lobbying, workshops and possibly demonstrations.
"Our concern is that the industrialised countries will only discuss development on the basis of quid pro quo," said Marianne Hochuli of the Bern Declaration.
To begin with at least, development was meant to be the focus of the Doha round of talks, the NGOs point out. And according to Hochuli, it should be put back at the heart of the talks.
This could be done by not looking for concessions in services and industrial products but rather being prepared to make concessions in agriculture, Hochuli explained, in a clear reference to Switzerland.
No real link
The premise underlying the WTO is that liberalisation will stimulate development, claims Michel Egger of the Swiss Alliance of Development Organisations.
But he does not see an automatic link between the two. "It is often very illusory to think that opening up the markets in the developing world will engender real development processes."
On the contrary, opening up markets has caused impoverishment, de-industrialisation, and deterioration in infrastructure, the NGOs argue. They also stress the diversity of local conditions and needs in developing countries.
For Michel Egger, WTO rules tend to put countries in straitjackets, particularly in relation to tariffs. "Development can't take place unless the countries can benefit from a political space in which to define the balance between protectionism and liberalisation," Egger adds.
Closer to home, Swiss NGOs have called on the government to stop demanding very broad liberalisation of industry and services in developing countries.
The NGOs have fewer objections to Switzerland's official position on agriculture, which is shared with the G10 group of agriculture importing countries. Small Swiss farmers have the same concerns as farmers from developing countries in the face of mass agricultural exporters such as Brazil, India and Australia.
The NGOs are pressing more for the elimination of export subsidies and the scaling down of domestic support. However, the international relations representative of the Swiss Farmers' Union, Heidi Bravo, estimates that Swiss agriculture could not survive without the protection afforded by customs tariffs.
"We are in favour of pursuing negotiations, but at a more reasonable level which takes account of the realities on the ground," said Bravo.
The environment is another question that worries the NGOs. In the area of non-agricultural products, resources like wood, fishing and their derivatives are likely to face liberalisation.
"It's alarming because these resources are already subject to considerable pressure," Sonja Ribi of Pro Natura observed. "Our proposal is to exclude these natural resources from the negotiations."
Attac Switzerland has taken a more radical approach, stating that there is no point in the Hong Kong conference taking place.
"This round will benefit neither the poor of the developing world, nor the workers and farmers of the developed world, but only a small elite," said Attac spokesman Alessandro Pelizzari.
Attac Switzerland is therefore joining the international call for a moratorium on the negotiations.
swissinfo, Pierre-François Besson
The sixth ministerial conference of the WTO takes place from December 13 to 18 in Hong Kong.
The meeting of the organisation's highest decision-making body should lead to the conclusion of the so-called Doha round of trade talks, launched in 2001.
Representatives of 149 countries are taking part in this meeting.
Economics Minister Joseph Deiss will lead the Swiss delegation.
Swiss Coordination Equitable World Trade is a grouping of more than 30 development organisations, aid and environmental organisations, unions and farmers' associations.
The Swiss Alliance of Development Organisations is the umbrella group for the six largest aid organisations – Swissaid, the Lenten Fund, Bread for All, Helvetas, the Catholic and Protestant church charities, Caritas and Heks.