Opening remarks by DG Azevêdo

Roberto Azevêdo’s speeches


Good morning everyone.

Welcome to the World Trade Organization — and welcome to the 2016 Public Forum.

This is the 15th Public Forum. It has always been, and remains, a highlight of the WTO calendar.

Over the last 15 years this event has brought around 20,000 participants to the WTO, and sparked over 4,000 hours of debate.

Interest continues to grow, with more requests to hold events — and more and more people wanting to take part. Over 2,000 people registered to attend this year — a record number.

It’s always a pleasure to welcome you all and to hear your views on the big issues of the day.

And this year it seems that the issues are bigger than ever!

Trade is currently headline news.

Everyone is talking about the backlash against trade and globalisation.

History suggests that this is not uncommon in times of prolonged low growth. But history also shows the dramatic consequences that this kind of sentiment can have. And in some places the debate seems to be heading in a dangerous direction.

So we need to talk about these issues — and we need to ensure the right policies are adopted.

Because it’s clear that action is needed.

This morning we announced new figures showing a dramatic slowdown in trade growth — with growth this year set to be the lowest since the financial crisis.

This is a wake-up call.

The world has built up a long record of momentum towards open trade. But now that momentum has slowed, and it is affecting growth.

So we need to refocus the debate. That means correcting some misconceptions, and reminding ourselves what is at stake here.

Trade has been one of the most powerful anti-poverty tools in history.

In recent decades it has helped to lift a billion people out of poverty in developing countries. And it has improved lives and livelihoods in developed countries.

The charge often levelled against trade is that it sends jobs overseas. But actually trade is a relatively minor cause of job losses.

The evidence shows that well over 80% of job losses in advanced economies are not due to trade, but to increased productivity through technology and innovation.

More than that, the evidence shows that trade is a generator of high quality jobs and sustained economic growth. Trade-related jobs pay more. Companies that trade are more competitive.

For all these reasons — and more — we need trade.

But it’s also important to acknowledge the problems. We have to have a balanced debate.

Talking about the overall benefits of trade is of little comfort to someone who has lost their job, or who lives in poverty.

Therefore, we need to acknowledge that trade can cause dislocation and can create uncertainties in some sectors and communities.

We should acknowledge that the benefits of trade don’t reach as many people as they should.

And we should act … not by attacking trade, but by making it work better.

A more closed economy wouldn’t save jobs, it would destroy them. Salaries would be lower, prices would be higher. There would be less choice. Economic growth would decline. The poorest would be hit the hardest. And it would likely increase tensions between nations.

So we shouldn’t be trying to shut trade down — we should be redoubling our efforts to make trade truly inclusive.

That means building a system where the benefits are shared more widely …

  • A system that is responsive to those in need.
  • A system that can open up new paths for growth and development.
  • A system that goes further to support poorer countries to take part and benefit, as well as entrepreneurs, SMEs, women, and marginalised groups in all economies.

And, as part of this, we must also recognise the effects of innovation and technology.

Like with trade, these forces are indispensable for sustained growth and development, so rather than trying to reject them, we have to learn to adapt.

We have to ask: what will the economy look like in 20 years’ time, and how can we prepare?

For example, if self-driving technology starts to take jobs from truck drivers and taxi drivers, how are we going to adapt? These are major sources of employment today.

Studies suggest that in some developed economies almost 50% of jobs are at high risk of automation. Governments must be prepared for that. In 10 or 20 years, no one can claim that they didn’t know what was in store.

Technology has already disrupted how we trade. E-commerce was worth around 22 trillion dollars last year.

What does that mean for inclusion when still, today, less than 50% of the world is online?

We have to help people to leverage technology — particularly SMEs — so that this marketplace doesn’t just become the preserve of the big players.

These are big issues and big changes, and they need an appropriate response.

Domestically, new policies will be required to ensure that global forces work on a more human scale — and to ensure that governments can help people adapt to a changing global economy.

And the response needs to be across government — not just in trade ministries. It must bring in finance policy, education and skills, and adjustment support to the unemployed. There are many interesting case studies to learn from — like the wage support provided in Singapore during the financial crisis, or regeneration efforts in Pittsburgh after the decline of their steel sector.

And the response must also come at the global level.

First, through initiatives which help increase trading capacity in developing and least developed countries, like Aid for Trade.

And second, through new trade reforms delivered here at the WTO, which lower barriers to help everyone to compete — especially the smaller players.

A truly inclusive system would mean all this, and more. And so this is what we want to discuss here this week.

This is not a moment to turn inward.

It is a moment to learn from history and re-commit to openness in trade — while also making the benefits available to all.

So, now, let’s get on with the debate!

First we are going to hear remarks from Minister Oke Enelamah of Nigeria, who will be delivering an address on behalf of His Excellency President Buhari.

Then we will hear from Commissioner Malmstrom of the EU.

After that, our moderator Liu Xin will lead our discussion, and welcome questions from the floor.

So thank you for listening — I wish you an engaging and very inclusive few days!
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