WTO PUBLIC FORUM 2018

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The Public Forum is the WTO’s largest annual outreach event, providing a unique platform for parliamentarians, leading global business people, students, academics and non-governmental organizations to come together and debate on a wide range of WTO issues and on some of the major trade and development topics of the day.

More than 2,500 participants have registered to attend this year's Forum, the theme of which is "Trade 2030".  More than 100 sessions have been scheduled to examine what sustainable trade will look like in 2030 and beyond, with sub-themes focusing on sustainable trade, technology-enabled trade and a more inclusive trading system.

DG Azevêdo noted that the rapid changes taking place today, from the emergence of new technologies to growing environmental risks, are challenging the way we think about trade. With the proper policies in place, the technological revolution could help fuel significant trade growth. At the same time, new technologies are expected to create substantial churn in the global jobs market, with tens of millions of jobs lost and created in the coming years.

"More and more trade will be happening through digital platforms," DG Azevêdo said. "New ways of delivering products will come on stream. New kinds of services will be created. So we have to ask – is the global trading system that we have today equipped for that new environment?"

"I believe that the fundamental principles still apply, as enshrined in the WTO agreements: the importance of clear rules, openness, cooperation and non-discrimination," he said.

Whether the current system of rules is enough to manage this change is still an open question, DG Azevêdo added. Absent a regular updating of these rules, there is a risk of growing gaps between those basic principles and the evolution of habits, behaviours and even ethical values.

"We have to set a path towards better global trade by 2030 – trade that is even more sustainable and inclusive," he said. "We can't put progress on hold until we're ready. We have to start talking now. We have to get involved." His full speech is available here.

Keynote speakers at the Opening Plenary stressed the importance of innovation and flexibility in adapting to the new global trading environment, and putting proper policies in place to allow innovation to flourish and facilitate the achievement of sustainability and inclusiveness objectives.

Erik Solheim, Executive Director of UN Environment, underlined the important role of trade in supporting sustainable development, including trade's role in contributing to the sharp reduction in global poverty in recent years and promoting the expanded use of renewable energies and technologies. 

"Last year we had more electricity coming onto the global grid from solar alone," noted Mr Solheim. "Could that happen without trade?  No. It may have started in California and Germany, but the enormous markets of China and India took it to such a scale that solar can now compete on price with coal everywhere in the world."

"That's a change that would have been impossible without trade."

Jack Ma, Executive Chairman and co-founder of the Alibaba Group, a world leader in global e-commerce, outlined a rosy forecast for trade – one driven by e-commerce, small businesses and services. He urged the Forum audience to have confidence in the future. 

"Let's stop worrying about the future," he declared. "You may not have the solutions, but young people have the solutions.  You don't have the solution today, but you'll have the solution tomorrow."

The year 2030, he predicted, would see a substantial increase in the amount of business conducted online, greater involvement of small businesses in e-commerce, and more consumer-to-business transactions.

"Today we see Made in China or Made in Switzerland, 2030 will be Made in Internet," he declared.  "All these things will fundamentally change the way we do trade, but for sure most businesses will benefit, we will create a lot more jobs than we expected."

Laura Behrens Wu, CEO and co-founder of Shippo, a multi-carrier shipping platform, said one of the big advantages from the new world of trade will include lower entry costs for entrepreneurs and removing geographical boundaries to trade.

"It's easier than ever to start an online business," Ms Behrens said. "You don't need a physical location, starting an online business is asset-low, and people can focus on what they're best at, which is making creative and beautiful products, taking care of customers, and being in touch with the trends."

"People have been saying we cannot stop technology. I don't want to stop technology. People are leveraging technologies to be more creative and be able to form more human connections and make the world a smaller place."

Tunde Kehinde, Co-founder of Lidya, a leading platform for small- and medium-sized business lending in emerging markets, said obtaining affordable finance was critical in allowing these companies to participate in trade and take advantage of the opportunities offered by access to global markets.

"When you look at sustainable development goals, around job creation and equality, the fact that you can now provide the financing (small businesses) need to meet buyers' demands really opens up markets for these small businesses that weren't there before."

Mr Kehinde urged small business to engage with governments and make their case for creating a business environment that will help them take advantage of new technologies and flourish.

"If you're not at the table, the challenge you face is that regulation is being made without your voice. And that regulation can be very disruptive, it's tough to unwind."

Christine Bliss, President of the US-based Coalition of Services Industries (CSI), said there was a bright future ahead for services providers in the new technology-driven trade environment. Nevertheless, her members were concerned with some emerging regulatory trends which threatened to disrupt this progress.

"The demands for data localization and data processing requirements are a huge problem and they do threaten to break down the delivery of services in an efficient, cost-effective manner on a cross-border basis," Ms Bliss declared.  "The pressure to impose duties on electronic transmissions is another huge challenge which, if not handled correctly, could lead to a serious breakdown in cross-border e-commerce."

"Cybersecurity risks and over-reaction by governments is another area that needs to be tackled. Cooperative frameworks need to be developed to handle that carefully. And the limits of services market access commitments are also limiting. We're pressing up against them and need to find ways to move forward."

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