It's not all plain sailing, but the WTO system can be made to work for everyone, say four new books.
Books on the WTO have been rolling off the presses around the globe this past year, the organization's tenth anniversary, as any Internet search will show. Some are critical, some anecdotal and some impenetrably analytical. Few provide the insight on practical experience in negotiating entry and on drawing maximum advantage from membership that developing country diplomats and negotiators, business groups, individual firms, civil society bodies and even academics and specialist journalists often say they need. Three recent additions to the trade library go some way to plugging that gap, while a fourth argues that the WTO can be a powerful support for sustainable development if its members can decide how to tackle the problematic issues that it involves.
Joining the WTO and operating within its framework has been a frustrating experience for many developing countries. Some who have entered over the past decade, or are still seeking admission, speak openly of the bitterness they sometimes felt during the prolonged accession process. Others voice the disappointments they say they have encountered as members, particularly over the past four years of the Doha Development Agenda. Yet, none of the current 149 WTO members shows any desire to pull out and nearly 30 more, both relatively rich and extremely poor, are lining up to join. Only one country, the Pacific island state of Vanuatu, whose case is reviewed in Managing the Challenges of WTO Participation, has withdrawn from entry negotiations to consider its options.
Getting the best from the system
What then is the attraction of the WTO? According to authors and contributors to each of these volumes, it is mainly the widespread conviction that it can be made to work for everyone.
That message is delivered succinctly in the foreword to Managing the Challenges of WTO Participation. Its editors affirm that the 45 studies, a majority of which were written by authors from developing countries, highlight dilemmas that a range of less advanced economies faced and "show that when the system is accessed and employed effectively, it can serve the interests of poor and rich countries alike".
This view is echoed from the perspective of five South Asian nations - Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - by the secretary-General of CUTS (Consumer Unity & Trusts Society), Pradeep S. Mehta, in South Asian Positions in the WTO Doha Round. "The South Asian region has full faith in the multilateral trading system and [the five countries] realise that the Doha Development Agenda offers tremendous opportunities for these countries to achieve their overarching objective of sustainable development and poverty alleviation," he writes in the volume published by his independent research centre. Siphana Sok was former secretary of State in Cambodia's Ministry of Commerce and its main negotiator on WTO admission and is now Director of ITC's Technical Cooperation Coordination Division. In his memoir, Lessons of Cambodia's Entry into the World Trade Organization, he explains that his government used the accession process as a stimulus to "irreversible trade liberalization and more broadly based reforms".
Gary P. Sampson, a former divisional director at the WTO and now Professor of Economic Governance at the United Nations University in Yokohama, Japan, engages a much wider perspective in The WTO and Sustainahle Development, arguing that, by identifying and developing discussion on issues where trade and sustainable development intertwine, the WTO could enhance its role as a key instrument in global poverty reduction.
All the editors of Managing the Challenges have long been involved with the WTO or its predecessor, the secretariat for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Peter Gallagher was an Australian trade diplomat who now heads a leading consultancy; Patrick Low is currently WTO Director of Economic Research and Statistics; and Andrew Stoler is a former United States trade negotiator and lawyer who served recently as a WTO Deputy Director-General before moving into academia. …