Opening remarks by DG Azevêdo

Welcome to the WTO Public Forum.

I'm Roberto Azevêdo, Director-General of the WTO — and your host this week.

On behalf of the WTO Secretariat, I'd like to thank all of you for joining us, whether you're here in Geneva or participating online.

Trade can sometimes seem a bit abstract. In fact, it is anything but. The video we just saw is a reminder of that.

Trade is part of our lives. It's about the goods and services we buy and sell. But it's also about the hopes we have for our families, our businesses, and our societies.

As we heard — and as we can see every day — trade is evolving.

New technologies, environmental risks, and social pressures are reshaping the ways we do business — at home and across borders.

These changes were the focus of last year's forum. Many of you may remember the excellent exchange of ideas about how trade would look in the future.

This year's theme is closer to home. It's about how we need to change — and by ‘we’, I mean the WTO, as well.

We need to evolve. We need to change, because technology advances, more services become tradable, and rising generations join the workforce.

But of course, some things remain constant. People still want decent jobs. They want a sense of security about their own prospects, and those of their children. They want to feel included in wider economic progress. They want clean water, and breathable air. These are pretty legitimate and basic aspirations.

For trade and technology to keep delivering on these aspirations, governments, companies and the trading system will all need to adapt.

Over the next four days, we will look beyond today's headlines, and grapple with questions about the future.

  • How should the trading system respond to the changing landscape?
  • What policy and institutional changes will countries need to adapt?
  • What should businesses do differently? What are the rules of the game that they will need?

Similar questions were raised by past waves of technological breakthroughs.

In the 19th century, with steam power and early machines, the First Industrial Revolution upended completely long-established ways of life.

Railroads and steamships made merchandise more tradable. The telegraph slashed communication times. A truly global marketplace took shape for a growing number of goods.

As the 20th century dawned, the Second Industrial Revolution harnessed electricity. It was the era of assembly lines and mass production.

These innovations would go on to transform living standards in now-developed economies.

But first, countries — and labour markets — had to adapt. And though the process was anything but smooth, new policies, practices, and institutions eventually helped them get there.

At home, governments brought in social protection, universal education, and new rights for workers. Labour unions secured higher wages and benefits.

At the international level, countries tried opening up to each other’s products. They also experimented with protectionism — with less success. Finally, after the Second World War, they set up the multilateral trading system. This laid the foundation for predictable, rules-based commerce — and for a boom in global trade.

A few decades later, amid the Third Industrial Revolution of computers and telecommunications, governments reshaped the trading system into the WTO we know today. We developed binding rules for goods, services and intellectual property. Combined with new technologies, the rules-based trading system helped drive a huge expansion of trade and investment. Global value chains became widespread. Poverty rates plummeted.

The challenge now before us is to adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

To adapt to a world of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and intangible assets.

A world where networked devices and digital platforms are enabled by cross-border flows of goods, services and data.

A world in which two-thirds of the population was born after 1980.

New technologies have the potential to expand human capabilities and enable inclusive prosperity. Or, they could fuel unemployment, inequality, and years of instability and unrest.

The future we get will be shaped by the policies we choose today, at the domestic and international levels.

Our ongoing discussions on WTO reform are part of this response. They offer members an opportunity to cooperatively define positive-sum rules for the 21st century economy.

But members cannot find the answers by themselves. Interacting with representatives from civil society, academia, and the private sector this week will help clarify issues, risks, and opportunities. Work on WTO reform will benefit from the exchanges you have here.

This year's Public Forum is — by far — the biggest ever. Over 3200 people registered to attend — that's about 30% more than last year's record. The pool of participants and speakers is more geographically diverse than ever before.

Demand to hold sessions was so high that we added a fourth day. And even then we had to turn down applications, because we ran out of space. Between now and Friday, 140 sessions will look at every angle of the debate. Every room in the WTO will be occupied — except mine.

The enthusiasm has been reassuring. It means we're asking the right questions — and that we are working together to find answers.

To start things off this morning, we have a fantastic panel for you. And from left — your left — to right, they are:

  • Tina Fordham, Managing Director and Chief Global Political Analyst at Citi. She explains macropolitical, security and socio-economic developments to investors and corporate boards. Tina leads Citi’s research on gender economics, and served on the UN’s first High-Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment.
  • Then we have Jeffrey Sachs, University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Jeff has been an advisor to three heads of the United Nations, and currently serves as an advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals. He is high on any list of influential economists, and is the author of several books.
  • Next is Melanie Kreis, who is the Chief Financial Officer at Deutsche Post DHL Group, a leading global logistics company. Earlier in her career, she worked at McKinsey and in private equity.
  • And finally, Adebola Williams is the CEO and co-founder of RED | For Africa, the continent's largest portfolio of youth-oriented media brands. In his native Nigeria, Adebola worked as a media consultant for President Buhari. And he is so committed to operating across borders that he also worked for a successful presidential campaign in Ghana.

Please join me in extending a warm welcome to the panel.

A few housekeeping matters. As you know, the WTO is firmly committed to non-discrimination and a level playing field. So when it’s time for questions to the panel, whether you’re in this room or watching online, please submit them via social media or the Slide-O app.

For social media, find the WTO on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and send questions in under the hashtag #AskPF19. Instructions on how to use Slide-O are in the leaflet in front of you, or right under the webcast player window. In case you are here and do not have an internet-enabled device, there's some flexibility: you may use pen and paper and hand your question to one of the ushers.

I will receive questions on my tablet, and promise to ask as many as I can. I will give utmost priority to questions that are related to the topics we’re discussing.

So let's get started.




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