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Issues covered by the WTO’s committees and agreements

Why is the liberalization of services important?

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Tourism employs one worker in ten worldwide.

It is impossible for any country to prosper today under the burden of an inefficient and expensive services infrastructure. Producers and exporters of textiles, tomatoes or any other product will not be competitive without access to efficient banking, insurance, accountancy, telecoms and transport systems. In markets where supply is inadequate, imports of essential services can be as vital as imports of basic commodities. The benefits of services liberalization extend far beyond the service industries themselves; they are felt through their effects on all other economic activities.

The production and distribution of services, like any other economic activity, is ultimately destined to satisfy individual demand and social needs. The latter element—social needs—is particularly relevant in sectors like health or education which in many, if not all, countries are viewed as a core governmental responsibility. They are subject to close regulation, supervision and control. Although social policy concepts—including equity and universal access—do not necessarily imply that Governments also act as producers, public facilities have traditionally been, and continue to be, the main suppliers of services such as health and education in most countries.

In 1999, the value of cross-border trade in services amounted to US$1350 billion, or about 20% of total cross-border trade. This understates the true size of international trade in services, much of which takes place through establishment in the export market, and is not recorded in balance-of-payments statistics. For the past two decades trade in services has grown faster than merchandise trade. Developing countries have a keen interest in many services areas including tourism, health and construction. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism is the world’s largest employer accounting for one in ten workers worldwide. According to IMF data for 1999, tourism exports, estimated at US$443 billion, were 33% of global services exports and 6.5% of total exports.

The liberalization of trade in goods, which has been promoted through negotiations in the GATT over the past 50 years, has been one of the greatest contributors to economic growth and the relief of poverty in mankind's history. Following the catastrophic experience of the first half of the 20th century, Governments deliberately turned away from the policies of economic nationalism and protectionism which had helped to produce disaster, and towards economic cooperation based on international law. Growth in this period was not uniformly shared, but there is no doubt that those countries which chose deeper involvement in the multilateral trading system through liberalization benefited greatly from doing so.

There was no parallel movement of multilateral liberalization of services trade until the negotiation of the GATS and its entry into force in 1995. Since the services sector is the largest and fastest-growing sector of the world economy, providing more than 60% of global output and in many countries an even larger share of employment, the lack of a legal framework for international services trade was anomalous and dangerous—anomalous because the potential benefits of services liberalization are at least as great as in the goods sector, and dangerous because there was no legal basis on which to resolve conflicting national interests.

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