SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO

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Opening remarks by DG Azevêdo

Welcome to the 2018 WTO Public Forum. I'm Roberto Azevêdo, Director-General of the WTO – and your host today.

Thank you all for joining us.

With our theme this year of 'Trade 2030', we are inviting you to raise your eyes from the trade issues of today, and look to the future. 

  • What will trade be like in 2030?
  • How can we shape it to fit our priorities?
  • How can we make it more sustainable?
  • How can we make it more inclusive?
  • Are we ready for the changes that lie ahead?

These are the issues that we will be discussing this week.

We all know that the world is changing. It is happening at an unprecedented rate.

New technologies are emerging. Environmental risks are growing. And this is challenging the way we think about trade.

If the proper synergies are in place, particularly regarding public policies, by 2030 the technological revolution could help fuel additional trade growth of around 30 percentage points. This is huge.

More and more trade will be happening through digital platforms. 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.

But is this enough?

We are seeing new advances being made every day in so many fields: in AI, green technology, 3-D printing, robotics, quantum computing and blockchain (or distributed ledgers).

In any system where you have a constitution, or a founding legal text, if it is not regularly updated, you will see growing gaps between those basic principles and the evolution of habits, behaviours and even ethical values.

More often than not, it is the courts that step in to fill those gaps, creating jurisprudence. This route may be faster, but it does not necessarily reflect the wishes and priorities of everyone it affects.

So this is the key question: Do we want to leave the task of filling the blanks to the courts or to unilateral action? Or do we want to sit down and fill in the blanks together?

The world is changing before our eyes. And although we cannot stop this evolution, we can shape it. In fact, I believe we have to shape it.

If we do not, it is inevitable that many will be left behind. It will create new social problems, new sources of unease and unrest.

For example, there was a recent report from the World Economic Forum which found that by 2025, for the first time in history, machines will perform more work tasks than humans.

They found that technology could wipe out 75 million jobs over the next four years. 75 million!

But, at the same time, it could create 133 million new roles.

That is a phenomenal opportunity. But it can only be seized with immediate, positive action to reskill workers and support their transition into these new jobs. And that is because the worker that loses his or her job (in manufacturing, for example) will not be ready to occupy a position that has opened in a more dynamic sector of the economy.

This kind of lesson applies across the board.

Technological change could create new problems. It could increase the power of bigger firms at the expense of smaller companies. It could create new inequalities, for example between digitally advanced economies and those that are lagging behind.

Or it could help us to build the future that we want to see, helping smaller players and distributing the benefits of trade and economic growth more widely.

In fact, this is what the Sustainable Development Goals are all about. World leaders came together to set those goals precisely to shape the future, and create a better world by 2030.

We have to set a path towards better global trade by 2030 – trade that is even more sustainable and inclusive, and which is responsive to emerging challenges.

And in doing this, I don’t think we can wait until we understand all of the elements of technological change and precisely how they are going to evolve. Because that is never going to happen.

We can't put progress on hold until we're ready. We have to start talking now. We have to get involved.

And that's what we'll be debating here at the Public Forum: what the future will look like – and how we can work together to make sure that it works for everyone.

This year's event is bigger than ever.

In fact, since 2012 the attendance and the number of events have more than doubled.

Over the next three days, we'll welcome over two and a half thousand attendees and hold 112 events.

We actually received applications to host a remarkable 237 events this year. The only problem is that we ran out of space. I'm afraid we can’t add any more rooms, but we could add more time – so next year we're thinking about extending the event to a 4th day.

It's great that we're seeing such an overwhelming response. It means we're on the right track, and we're raising the right issues.

So I think it's going to be a great week.

And to kick-off the conversation, we have gathered a fantastic panel.

  • I'm very pleased to welcome Erik Solheim, Executive Director of UN Environment and UN Under-Secretary-General. Erik has an extensive career focusing on environment and development issues. And I'm pleased to say that we are joining forces to find opportunities and innovative ways to strengthen our economies and the environment at the same time.
  • I'm pleased also to welcome Jack Ma, who is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the Alibaba Group – and surely one of the most remarkable business leaders and visionaries of our time. Jack has been named a Sustainable Development Goals advocate by the United Nations. And Jack and I have been working closely together in recent years to enrich and inform the growing debate on e-commerce.
  • Next we have Laura Behrens Wu – the CEO and Co-founder of Shippo, which she has built into a leading multi-carrier shipping platform. She is also one of the Forbes 30 under 30s. And as we're talking about the future today, I look forward to hearing Laura's perspective as a young business leader.
  • Next we have another young business leader – Tunde Kehinde, who is the Co-founder of Lydia. Lydia is a digital platform designed to help business owners access financing. Tunde is quite a prolific entrepreneur having also co-founded Africa Courier Express, a last-mile delivery company, and Jumia, an e-commerce platform. Both of which are leaders in their field in Nigeria.
  • And finally we have Christine Bliss, the President of the US Coalition of Services Industries. Christine is well known to many of us as she is a former Assistant U.S. Trade Representative and trade negotiator – both here at the WTO and for various US free trade agreements. She is a noted expert on trade issues, and particularly services.

So that's our panel. We are very pleased to have you all with us today.

And this is going to be a truly global debate. We are opening up the conversation to those who couldn’t join us today.

We are webcasting this session – so I should say a special welcome to everyone watching around the world.

When it comes to the moment for the panel to take questions, we will be receiving them from you here in the room, and from outside – via social media.

Once you've sent them in, I will receive your questions here on my tablet. And I promise that I'll ask as many as I can.

So now, that's enough housekeeping – let's get started.

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