SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO

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Secretary-General Sy,
Deputy Special Representative Madi,
Ambassador Lisson,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning – and welcome.

We are here today to ask ourselves some very important questions:

  • How can trade policies and practices help in dealing with natural disasters?
  • And what could the WTO itself do to support this effort?

The UNISDR says that “disaster risk reduction is everyone's business”.

I absolutely agree with that sentiment.

So my hope is that this Symposium will stimulate dialogue on these issues.

We need to better appreciate the nature of the hazards faced. We also must understand the work that is being undertaken to respond, to promote recovery and to foster resilience.

Today's event is an opportunity to share ideas and explore what role the trade community may play.

And in tackling this issue, it is appropriate that we seek the views and expertise of organizations like the IFRC, UNISDR and others both within the UN and outside. So I'm very pleased to welcome our panel today. And I'd like to thank Ambassador Lisson and the Australian government for their support to take this work forward.  

It may not seem immediately clear what role trade has in the debate on natural disasters – but I think we can point to some very clear elements which have been highlighted by WTO members.

At the front of our minds is the Declaration by Dominica and other Eastern Caribbean states which was made at the WTO's 11th Ministerial Conference in December last year. 

The Declaration, and plenary statements made by ministers, highlighted the catastrophic damage done in the Eastern Caribbean by last year's hurricane season. And they pointed to the role that the multilateral trading system has to play in enabling reconstruction and rebuilding – in promoting recovery by enabling the flow of essential supplies. 

This is perhaps the most obvious example of natural disasters being raised at the WTO. But when you start to look at the records, it quickly becomes clear that the issue has arisen quite regularly in our work.

For example, the economic impact of such events has featured in our Trade Policy Reviews: 

  • Haiti's 2015 Review is a case in point. It discusses the 2010 earthquake and the successive storms that hit the island after the earthquake. 
  • The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami appeared in Japan's 2013 Trade Policy Review. 
  • And references to Hurricane Katrina were noted in past Trade Policy Reviews of the United States. 

This year, the Trade Policy Review of Vanuatu is an opportunity to look at recovery from Cyclone Pam. The fact that Vanuatu's graduation from least-developed country status had to be pushed back until 2020 is an indication of the impact that these events can have. And I should note that a project funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework has helped in recovering from the damage caused. 

In addition, amongst the list of waivers granted by the General Council, you will find Trade Preferences granted to Nepal in the wake of the April 2015 earthquake and aftershocks.

Go back further and you will find another time-limited package of tariff preferences, this time approved for Pakistan in the wake of the 2010 floods.

Natural disasters were also raised in the context of the Trade Facilitation Agreement.

I recall the words of Ambassador Conejos, who chaired the Preparatory Committee that laid the groundwork for the implementation of the Agreement. He said that the TFA "would provide an enabling environment to allow Members to respond more quickly to future crises". 

And I would also argue that there is a role for trade in resilience. Services trade is essential in providing the necessary insurance cover, for example.

Look further through the archives and I'm sure that you will find other examples too.

So it's clear that these issues are already a common feature of our work.

We have been largely reactive however – finding solutions and highlighting problems as and when they arise. We have never taken the initiative of looking at the problem as a whole and considering beforehand how we should respond. That's what we're trying to do today.

Indeed, it's important for us to have one eye on these issues because the effects of our decisions here can cut both ways. The right policy can help boost supply side capacity and restore trade after a disaster. The wrong measure could stifle recovery, erode resilience, and restrain development.

So how do we move forward from here?

There is already a body of work that we can pull together and examine. As we will hear from our speakers today, there is a tremendous amount that is going on in other bodies.

It may be helpful for us to look at this work in more detail and consider how it relates to our activities here. We could examine, for example, how it relates to our agreements. Or how it connects to other cross-cutting areas such as Trade Policy Reviews, the Aid for Trade programme, and our interactions with other organizations. 

As ever, precisely how we do this is up to our members. And for clarity's sake, we are not looking at the creation of new processes. This is more about surveying what we and others are doing and how we might improve.

But I am confident that the trade community can play a positive role in responding to this urgent issue. I am ready to support members in this effort.

Before I close, let me leave you with this final thought.

Rigorous studies suggest that the frequency and severity of natural disasters are likely to increase. This issue is not going away.  

So let's be better prepared and better informed the next time we are called upon to respond.

Thank you.

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