Post-Doha Civil Society, What’s Next?

16 September 2011

As another WTO public forum pulls into view this week - an unimaginable event for some of us who struggled to be heard back in the 1990s - the opportunity presents itself to look afresh at the trade system that has evolved since Marrakesh and the role that civil society can play in shaping it into the next decade.

The global trading system and, indeed, global governance have come a long way since the early days of the WTO - a time when those interested in sustainable development faced a radically different landscape. Out of necessity, advocates used to focus on basic issues such as access and transparency, while former Director-General Renato Ruggiero defended the role of the WTO to sceptics as the "ambulance" that would rescue global governance. Today, the concept of access has shifted from "getting documents" to the ability to generate and use knowledge in a complex system. For many the question is no longer whether a monolithic WTO will wrest global governance from the duly elected, but whether it may need an ambulance of its own.

A 1996 Rip Van Winkle waking up in 2011 might be excused for thinking that he had been dropped into a feel good fairy tale. The intervening years have seen immense advances in the involvement of civil society in policymaking, both in Geneva and globally. Policymakers and civil society groups meet frequently and are often seen on the same side of the table, working on solutions to the most difficult problems. The integration of numerous crosscutting - and often contentious - issues have revealed the inevitable challenges for making coherent policies, even as these challenges help define the paths and coalitions for doing so. Countries like China, India, and Brazil have rocketed to economic power and global influence, and many see promising signs of development and potential growth from developing and least-developed countries. Notwithstanding the stagnant Doha negotiations, global and regional trade and integration have continued apace with autonomous liberalisation and a growing multiplicity of regional and bilateral agreements filling the void.

Given the array of institutions and instruments at play, pinning down the exact role the WTO has played in the creation of today's massive and complex global trade system would likely be an exercise in futility. But there is no doubt that the organisation has helped shape the quickly-changing global landscape of the past 15 years, with civil society playing a key role in the process.

In spite of these accomplishments, however, I maintain that civil society involvement is needed now more than ever. Indeed, the older issues that in past years took priority are now being displaced by new issues that civil society organisations are uniquely suited to pursue.

The new access barriers

While regular WTO symposia and the global proliferation of a more active civil society have been a boon to the world trading system, a new horizon has emerged for civil society to take an even greater role in the policymaking process. On the one hand, those working on trade-related policies now need both more in-depth and cross-disciplinary analysis, along with the capacity to use these in negotiations; on the other hand, policymakers need to be better networked and more aware of challenges and innovations across the global trading system.

More than a decade ago, many groups began to specialise on issues and lead the charge forward into new territory - both substantively and geographically. Their success in raising and advancing issues globally, especially in the context of a trading system that continues to become more geographically diverse, means that the challenges of enhancing knowledge across this system are that much more acute. While the days of global NGO campaigns seem to have faded, there remains a major gap to be filled that links knowledge and practice across issue areas and regions.

The importance of centres of decision making

The global trading system has not just spread out - it has also fundamentally changed from the bipolar world of the 1990s. This new multipolar world means that there are not only opportunities, but also imperatives in supporting communities of leadership in places like Beijing, New Delhi, and Brasilia. The role these centres of decision-making now play - in terms of defining sustainability, in terms of regional trade and growth and, of course, in terms of defining global trade and trade rules - means that cultivating sustainable development communities in these countries should be a top priority for global organisations and a key consideration for those among them seeking to catalyse systemic change. Shifting internal mindsets from that of former aid recipients to new global leaders, while recognising the unique developmental challenges and assets of each, can enrich the global debate about effective models of development.

Defining the next decade of the global trade system

While the future of the Doha Round has been hotly debated, it has unfortunately siphoned a great deal of civil society energy - just as it has with governments - away from attending to the trading system we actually have. Although conflating Doha with the WTO has been a natural evolution, the demise of Doha cannot herald the demise of the global trading system. The robust, interconnected system we know today extends far beyond the WTO, yet depends on the WTO for its full functioning.

Stale arguments around whether to close the Doha Round, change leaders, or pursue another of the myriad proposed solutions have left a gaping hole for civil society to influence what the trading regime can and should look like going forward. For example, systemic issues such as non-tariff barriers and private standards, or how to manage global supply chains and process and production measures in the context of the current rules, will shape the reality we will face in 2020. While autonomous liberalisation continues, new issues - such as energy and climate change - is quickly moving to a higher rank on the global agenda and could be addressed more vigorously in the context of trade.

Finally, civil society organisations have the opportunity to weigh in on how the proliferation of preferential agreements has affected them. Is the system of today a better one for access and progress, or is there a need for a renewed push to multilateralise, simplify, and ensure that access and participation barriers are levelled, rather than further complicated?

Although the public symposium will not be the last chance for civil society organisations to forge a new agenda, these groups should not be deterred by the state of Doha. Instead, they should seize this opportunity to help shape the global trading system on the principles of equity, inclusion, and knowledge-based action that have historically motivated these organisations and on which so many continue to depend.

Andrew Crosby is Managing Director for Operations and Strategy at ICTSD. The views expressed reflect the author's personal views and not necessarily those of ICTSD.

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