WTO Public Forum Sets "Inclusive Trade" at Top of Agenda

29 September 2016

The importance of making trade even more inclusive – especially for smaller businesses, women, and other stakeholders who have historically struggled to access the full benefits of trade – took centre stage this week at the World Trade Organization during its annual Public Forum.

The three-day event kicked off on Tuesday 27 September and is due to conclude later on Thursday, having brought together policymakers, civil society representatives, academics, and other interested actors to the organisation’s Geneva headquarters. This year’s event marked its fifteenth edition, with the number of registrants surpassing 2000 people.

Globalisation debate

This year’s theme of “Inclusive Trade” touched upon many similar issues to last year’s “Trade Works,” which also brought to the fore the problems of making sure trade frameworks are designed in a way that their benefits can be extended more broadly – and allow for more people to engage in international trade. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 October 2015)

In recent months, the trade and globalisation debate has spread far and wide, particularly in the context of the US presidential election. Two major trade deals have arguably drawn the most attention in this context: specifically, the efforts by 12 countries to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, along with attempts by the EU and Canada to sign and eventually ratify their own Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

While these trade deals and the US electoral climate have helped bring trade concerns to the fore, the debate has also been fuelled by a broader discontent in several countries over growing income inequality and the slow nature of the global economic recovery, whose benefits have yet to reach many people.

“Everyone is talking about the backlash against trade and globalisation,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo in opening this year’s event.

“History suggests that this is not uncommon in times of prolonged low growth. But history also shows the dramatic consequences that this kind of sentiment can have. And in some places the debate seems to be heading in a dangerous direction,” said the WTO chief.

On Tuesday, the organisation also released its latest trade forecast for 2016 and 2017, slashing earlier projections. (For more on the new figures, see related story, this edition)

“This is a wake-up call,” said Azevêdo to a packed conference hall on Tuesday morning, referring to the new figures and their implications. He warned that should such trends continue, they would have significant ramifications for economic growth as well.

Opening plenary: correcting misconceptions, supporting small business

Given the overall policy and political context, Azevêdo also called for correcting “misconceptions” on trade, noting that the bulk of job losses in advanced economies – approximately 80 percent – are the result of other factors. Meanwhile, trade has the potential for creating jobs and lasting growth.

“But it’s also important to acknowledge the problems. We have to have a balanced debate. Talking about the overall benefits of trade is of little comfort to someone who has lost their job, or who lives in poverty,” he added, urging not only for these issues to be acknowledged, but also for these to be addressed and resolved.

Other speakers at Tuesday’s opening plenary raised similar points, giving their perspective from their respective fields on how smaller companies and other “marginalised” groups are striving – and often struggling – to export their products.

Those speakers included EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström; eBay Director of Global Public Policy Hanne Melin; Founder of African Born 3D Printer Roy Ombatti; Nigerian Trade and Investment Minister Okechukwu E. Enelamah; and International Chamber of Commerce Secretary General John Danilovich.

“Obviously, many people in the world today do not feel included in trade, and that is something that must be taken into consideration,” said Malmström in her opening remarks, calling for proponents of trade to take the debate very seriously.

While some speakers brought forward the need for improved access to trade finance and to technology that will support trade, others also called for a better rules framework that helps support the world’s poorer countries. Enelamah, who delivered a speech on behalf of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, called for more work on making global trading rules more “development-friendly” going forward.

“Nigeria believes that a meaningful approach to inclusive trade will combine action by multilateral institutions for updated and more flexible rules, on the one hand, with acceptance of responsibility for serious and sustained domestic policy reforms by member states, on the other hand,” he said.

Other speakers noted that all of these issues – and more – remain problematic in helping small companies make inroads into the international trading landscape, and urged Forum participants to take these issues under consideration during this week’s event and beyond.

Ombatti, who represented a small Kenyan start-up making 3D printers, described his own company’s experience. One of their main projects is to help use these printers to create custom-made shoes for people whose feet have become misshapen as a result of being bitten by the jigger flea. His employees are still working in a small garage space, earning minimum wage, and much as they hope to eventually export their product, the costs in all respects are just too high.

“We’ve have to turn down so many international customers because we just can’t fathom how to ship our product,” he said, adding that his company, like many others, is looking to be given a “fair chance.”

World Trade Report: SMEs in the spotlight

The first day of the Public Forum also saw the launch of this year’s World Trade Report, with the latest edition of the organisation’s flagship publication focusing on how to “level the playing field” for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The report aims to provide an overview of how these SMEs operate in different parts of the world, including what role they play in generating employment, with the authors finding that they are often the main sources of jobs in several countries.

It also addresses the various constraints they face – for example, limited job stability and on-the-job training, along with lower productivity. With trade specifically, the authors note the role that e-commerce could have in making it easier for smaller businesses to begin exporting – something which usually takes longer for SMEs than for larger companies.

Tariffs, non-tariff measures, lack of access to trade finance, and cumbersome customs and border measures are also factors in slowing down SMEs’ involvement in trade. Among other findings, the report notes the value that ratifying and implementing the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) could have for these smaller companies, which was the subject of last year’s World Trade Report.

The negotiations for the TFA were completed nearly three years ago. For its entry into force, two-thirds of the WTO’s 164 members must ratify it. To date, 94 WTO members have done so, meaning that just over a dozen ratifications remain to reach this threshold.


More information

The WTO Public Forum is the organisation’s largest annual outreach event. Along with holding a series of plenary events featuring high-level officials from the public and private sectors, this year’s gathering also includes approximately 100 sessions, addressing topics ranging from global value chains to digital trade to sustainability standards.

A full schedule of the sessions, including related audio and video for select events, is available at the WTO website.

ICTSD reporting.

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