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Decision-making in the WTO: Medieval or Up-to-Date?
« on: January 17, 2012, 11:18:36 PM »

Decision-making in the WTO: Medieval or Up-to-Date?

Talking points, Carolyn Deere

September 26, 2006


In preparing for my presentation today, I aim to draw attention to some aspects of WTO decision-making which attract less attention than they ought to in the discussions on institutional reform.

To begin, it useful to review the five core functions that the WTO system serves: 1) a negotiation forum; 2) a forum for settling disputes; 3) transparency of trade policies through surveillance; 4) technical assistance and training; and 5) research and analysis. And one could also argue that it should have, but is largely missing, a sixth element—a problem-solving space.

Much of the literature and indeed the panel today is focused on the first two: negotiation and dispute settlement.

The core message of my presentation today is that we need to devote greater attention in the discussion of WTO decision-making and institutional reform to the other four areas—and more generally to the politics of the implementation of WTO Agreements.

Before discussing the implementation aspects, I’d like to highlight two aspects which have not yet been mentioned by other speakers focused on WTO decision-making related to ongoing negotiations.

First, there has been little discussion today of the importance of negotiation capacity to improved WTO decision-making. You can’t have an effective decision-making without effective negotiating capacity on the part of developing countries. Yet, we still have 33 WTO Members or countries in the process of accession with no representation in Geneva. The bulk of developing delegations have only 2-3 professional staff at most covering WTO issues.  Obviously, it is equally critical that developing countries have capacity back home—but it is also the case that for many countries, more effective participation in negotiations and fairer outcomes still depend on having the human resources to engage. As discussions of capacity-building for trade advance, it is important that this negotiation capacity element is not forgotten.

Second, there has been much discussion of the role that developing country coalitions might play in addressing the capacity gap on the part of developing countries. Here I draw on the work of my colleague Mayur Patel who is in the midst of extensive research on the operation of the African group coalition. In his work, he calls attention to the need for greater consideration of the accountability of coalitions as a mechanism of participation. In particular, he calls for greater exploration of the relationship between actors in a coalition, the relationships between coalition spokespersons and the general membership and the effect participation in coalitions may have on the accountability of governments to national governments and citizens.

In this presentation, my broad goal is to draw attention to one of the most curious aspects of the scholarship and policy work on the WTO: the limited attention to the aspects of the WTO system focused on implementation. If the negotiations are where countries can work together when it comes to implementation they most often stand alone. If we look at the practice of implementation we see that it is an intensely political process—the timing, sequencing, and content of developing country efforts to implement their WTO commitments are deeply influenced by external actors—donors, the WTO Secretariat and developed country trade representatives, among others.

For the purposes of this discussion today, I think it is important to advance a discussion of the role of the Secretariat in implementation. In its day-to-day work, the WTO Secretariat has an influence on implementation, namely through:
?   the Trade Policy Reviews,
?   the work of the Councils (such as the TRIPS Council)
?   the training & technical assistance,
?   the public communication function, and
?   the research

Each of these functions has a potentially political nature—they shape ideas about what actions governments should take and how they respond to and understand their obligations. The Secretariat has consistently called for increased resources to better fulfill all of these functions. In each case, our preliminary research suggests that we need a careful debate about why and for what purpose.

?   Research: In the area of research, for example, there is a need for debate about how much research capacity should be built at the Secretariat versus at the national and regional level, or in other international organisations. We need to ask what kind of research should be conducted by whom and which kinds would give developing countries the most leverage?
?   Technical assistance and training: There is a need for critical attention not just on the quantity of money available, but its substance, quality and purpose.  This is particularly important in countries with weak bureaucratic capacity where the influence of policy-related technical assistance can be definitive.
?   Trade policy reviews: A series of questions warrant attention: Does the TPR process help you to build a trade policy regime that will help advance a country’s  development interests? Do governments and national stakeholders learn anything from the process? How could they be most helpful? Did the world learn anything useful? Does the TPR accurately reflect: a) what is actually going on in the country; b) the issues and debates at hand; c) help governments to identify issues and challenges.

Importantly, to understand the politics of implementation, we may also need to look beyond the WTO to other venues. In the case of TRIPS, for example, a range of other donors have a far greater influence on how TRIPS is interpreted and implemented in developing countries, including WIPO, USAID, the EPO, etc. This can pose challenges to coordination for developing countries where delegates familiar with the debates and politics about TRIPS compliance may differ to those responsible for negotiating technical assistance with various donors.

At Oxford, we have just launched a research project to focus was the institutional reforms that would make the global trading system more responsive to development needs, which will include a focus on these issues of implementation, the role of the WTO Secretariat in that process, and also on the implications for whether and in what ways an expanded WTO Secretariat should be pursued. The outcomes of that research will be published in early 2007.
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