“Trade works,” Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said in his welcome address, “if it is accompanied by the right policies, if countries are supported to build the capacity they need to compete, and if we have a transparent system of rules which are agreed together and are enforced in a fair, open and cooperative way.”
“We need all of you to make sure the trading system will work for everyone,” Lilianne Ploumen, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, said in her keynote speech. “I do hope that with our mutual commitments and with combined efforts we can help achieve equal opportunities for all.”
Opening plenary debate
Lerato Mbele, the moderator, opened the debate by noting that while trade indeed works, the benefits are not shared by all in the same way.
Panellists began the discussion by defining inclusivity. Yuejiao Zhang, Appellate Body member, said this meant getting equal access through the WTO’s most favoured nation principle and special and differential treatment for poorer countries.
Anabel Gonzàlez, Senior Director for Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice at the World Bank Group, emphasized the need to include people in rural areas, conflict zones, and the informal sector as well as women.
Susan Schwab, former United States Trade Representative, said consideration must be made for everyone from production to consumption.
Ms. Ploumen said inclusivity meant all players have access to the formal system with formal rules.
DG Azevêdo said inclusivity was important both at a geographical as well as an individual level.
Amina Mohamed, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya, emphasized that developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) should be given attention.
The panellists discussed the benefits delivered by trade and the WTO; however, they also noted that benefits are not automatic to all. “This trickle down effect—forget about it. It only happens when we have policies to make sure everyone benefits,” Ms Ploumen said.
The panellists agreed that the prospects were even more worrying considering the current economic uncertainty. “We should be worried. I am concerned about the situation we are in,” Ms Schwab said, adding that trade and trade policy had the potential to be a “force multiplier” to deliver outcomes for women, youth, the environment, and other disadvantaged sectors. DG Azevêdo similarly said that, having exhausted fiscal and monetary policy, governments should explore using trade policy to turn around the slowdown and deliver gains to all.
To move forward, various policy options were discussed. Ms Gonzàlez and Ms Mohamed, for instance, emphasized the importance of domestic policy to improve an economy’s business climate, competitiveness and connectivity to regional and global trade.
On subsidies, Ms Zhang and Ms Mohamed noted the need for special and differential treatment for poorer countries while Ms Ploumen added that some developing economies have grown considerably since subsidies were first being negotiated and that talks need to reflect these changes.
On the environment, there were mixed views on whether stricter standards to address climate change were helping or hindering poorer economies.
Panellists agreed, however, that collaboration among governments on a multilateral level is necessary. “All these perceptions are valid. The good thing is the common thread,” said DG Azevêdo. “We need collaborative efforts.”
Afternoon plenary debate
The afternoon plenary debate focused on the relationship between trade and business, including small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and agribusiness.
DG Azevêdo opened the session by taking stock of what the WTO has accomplished for the business sector through efforts like the Aid for Trade initiative (which assists developing countries and LDCs export), the Trade Facilitation Agreement (which seeks to improve the ease of doing business at the border), the plan to eliminate tariffs on more information technology (IT) products through the expanded Information Technology Agreement and the plurilateral Environmental Goods Agreement in the pipeline.
“In recent years the WTO has shown that it can deliver agreements with real economic impact,” DG Azevêdo said. “Now we need the support of the business community to move ahead once again. The record shows that when we join forces — the private sector and governments in the WTO — we can achieve a great deal,” he said.
Harold McGraw III, chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce, echoed this by noting that the cooperation between governments and businesses is essential. “Government establishes policy but business is the one that executes it. They need to be on both sides of the coin,” he said. Mr McGraw further noted the importance of attracting investment to create growth and jobs as well as the significance of business organizations to help exchange information between government and the private sector.
Roland Auschel, Adidas board member in charge of global sales, discussed the importance of ironing out trade policy. “The reality today is that we’re still held by trade barriers, delays in importation and so on. We aren’t delivering on our consumer promise today,” he said. For Mr Auschel, cost and time are important factors that businesses consider as they integrate more and more into global value chains (GVCs).
Commenting on the GVCs, Gregory Doming, Trade Minister from the Philippines, noted that while integrated assembly lines are valuable for bringing in more businesses into trade, it is also important to consider alternatives for helping micro and small enterprises participate and export directly. “The mind set has been from the perspective of large enterprises and this locks out micro and small businesses from international trade,” he said. “I’m saying GVCs are very useful but we have to add on to this. We need more pipelines for them to directly export.”
Evelyn Nguleka, President of the World Farmers’ Organization, meanwhile emphasized the importance of trade to farmers and agribusiness. Trading results in the balance of resources, she said. “There are certain areas of the world where there is more of a resource than the other. We need a scenario where it is possible and efficient and everyone can participate.” To accomplish this, however, the playing field needs to be more level in the case for instance of financing for poorer farmers.At the close of the plenary, the moderator Ms Mbele asked each panellist whether trade works for business. Messrs McGraw, Auschel, Domingo and Ms Nguleka answered in the affirmative. When asked whether the WTO will do all it can to ensure this, DG Azevêdo replied: “Yes, if members let us.”