For those of us interested in trade issues and global trade sustainability, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Public Forum , held yearly at the WTO Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland is THE place to be in early October. The event advances conversations around international trade topics by providing an opportunity for policy leaders from academia, business, and government and the public, through simple online registration, to engage in a public arena, and exchange public policy questions, concerns, and ideas on advancing trade. It is a rare and excellent opportunity demonstrating people holding “power” accountable.
During this year’s opening session, Roberto Azevedo, the WTO Executive Director said: “Trade can sometimes seem a bit abstract, but in fact it’s anything but!” Indeed! Trade is simply about doing business, sometimes domestically, sometimes across borders, and we are all affected by it. Today’s global supply chains bring raw materials to our local bakers, clothes to our nearest outlet mall, technology to our fingertips, as well as services from banking to travel, and jobs that transcend borders. But, with the advent of the digital economy and the political disruption affecting who leads and who follows in trade, our way of trading is being entirely reshaped.
The event’s theme is ‘Trading Forward: Adapting to a Changing World’ and is about how advances in trade, require the trading system to evolve. Many participants argued that in the context of a changing international trade environment, there are consequences when we give up the global accessibility we’ve become accustomed to, through unilateral trade actions that jeopardize the global advances we’ve made thus far, and even our potential to meet many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
According to the WTO, this year’s Public Forum is the biggest ever, with 3200 registered attendees, which translates to a 30% increase from last year’s Forum. That’s a big jump! It seems, the average citizen is even more enthused and concerned about the impact of trade’s digital era on their lives. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, cross border flows of goods, services, and data… all can lead us to more prosperity, or more inequality and unrest. Those issues, risks and opportunities must be worked out by the governments we vote for, as well as the private sector we buy from, and the civil society organizations who represent us in the debate about how we will work within the rules-based trading system; or what alternatives we can consider for assuring our shared prosperity in the future.
Additionally, political turbulence, social media disruption, data privacy concerns, geo-political conflicts, climate change, and food, energy, and water resource management, all have an economic impact on the trading system. Those stresses can be managed within the current trading system, if we understand that the world economy is totally dependent on open trade in meeting today’s needs. But for trade to be inclusive, economic benefits have to re-distributed in countries that have traditionally contributed valuable, raw resources to the trading system, but haven’t successfully benefited from the resulting trade in those commodities. That re-distribution has not happened fast enough or effectively enough. For the system to improve for those on the fringes of trade, eliminate waste, and create more equality, there needs to be more focus on how to distribute trade gains in an equitable manner, how to maximize the potential of the digital economy, and how to fix the ecological challenges we see developing yearly, in part due to intensified global trade.
How do we navigate these complexities?
We can address these challenges on multiple fronts. First, since trade in services is growing faster than trade in goods, more attention needs to be paid to creating an environment that facilitates services trade, including promoting paperless trade and single-window trade facilities to make it simpler and more transparent for more businesses to engage in international commerce. Also, the sectors around trade in services, such as banking, insurance, and regulatory agencies, need to converge on ways to ease trade burdens and create more trade services related jobs. Second, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are creating more jobs across industrialized countries than large multinationals. Those SMEs should be afforded access to training on export planning, export finance and management, to name a few. Third, to promote a more level playing field, cutting edge research and technology solutions from academia and private sector should be shared with policy makers to help them focus on policies that facilitate and promote greater trade income distribution. Lastly, more needs to be done to include business representatives from both resource-rich and less-rich countries in economic forums that promote private sector mobilization around the SDG targets.
If we want to adapt trade to a changing world, then let us start where trade is already changing. The WTO Public Forum shared successful examples of eco-systems around the world focused on improving trade sustainability, including better waste management, implementing paperless trade, and facilitating more regional integration through technology. To multiply those successes, we must include cooperation with the emerging economies that are most affected by these issues, and where the largest share of youth and tomorrow’s consumers reside.
Using the tools we already possess on best practices for meeting trade challenges, such as those recommended by the United Nations Global Compact, we can break down the complex into practical steps that can secure the future of trade.
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Magda Theodate is an international trade attorney and Director of Global Executive Trade Consulting Ltd. She works as a senior consultant for international development agencies in lower and middle income countries, resolving project execution challenges affecting trade, procurement and governance. To learn more, please visit: www.globalexecutivetrade.com