WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires: What’s at stake for small, least developed and sub-Saharan African countries?
The World Trade Organization (WTO) Geneva preparatory process is sine qua non for all WTO Ministerial Conferences. It has nevertheless proven challenging for small delegations, given their limited capacity in terms of technical staff and other forms of support to effectively engage in all discussions, amid a number of other commitments.
The process toward the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11), to be held in Buenos Aires in December 2017, is no exception. How to ensure the inclusiveness and transparency of the process while making progress? How can the outcome of the Ministerial, amid a plethora of other issues, be reflective of the interests of the diverse membership of the WTO? What should be the approach, strategies and priorities? The success of Buenos Aires will depend to a large extent on the ability of the system to manage a fair and transparent process, as well as its capacity to cope with expectations in terms of outcomes.
In this regard, and given their unique situation, it is important for small states, least developed countries (LDCs) and other small delegations to be realistic in terms of the outcomes they are seeking at MC11, and how these can be further developed and advanced both in Geneva and at MC11. This represents an opportunity to ensure MC11 delivers on future work that is inclusive, particularly in view of the challenges these countries face to becoming integrated into the multilateral trading system.
This issue of Commonwealth Trade Hot Topics covers some key issues small states, LDCs and countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) could focus on in the run-up to MC11 and beyond.
Small states, LDCs and SSA countries dependent on trade for growth and development
Small states, LDCs and SSA countries depend considerably on trade for their growth and development. It is evident that trade contributes significantly to the gross domestic product (GDP) of these countries. For small states, the average percentage contribution of trade to GDP has remained well above the world average, even though these countries face a number of challenges and vulnerabilities that constrain their fuller participation in international trade, leading to slower growth in their exports and a small share of global trade. These challenges include, among others, small domestic markets; dependency on a few foreign markets; high costs of doing business (owing to high costs of energy, transport and communication servicing); long distances from major markets; lack of export diversification and reliance on raw material exports; little resilience to natural disasters; fragile natural environments; and poor and underdeveloped infrastructure.
In this regard, small states, LDCs and SSA countries recognise the important role the WTO plays in providing a system that has the potential to support their trade interests and their economic growth and sustainable development. In addition, the WTO plays a crucial role in ensuring transparency and predictability in the global trading system. This is especially important given the continued uncertainty in the global economic and trading landscape.
As small states, LDCs and SSA countries prepare for MC11, they must also think beyond the Ministerial, particularly in terms of focusing on what may be achievable under the Doha Round, and prioritise incremental gains. Besides continuing to advance issues identified in this paper in a post-MC11 period, it is important for small states, LDCs and SSA countries to take stock of the Doha Round, which is now in its 16th year of negotiation, and assess what is possible and achievable, particularly in view of the limited success of the Round in terms of delivering development-friendly outcomes. Such an assessment would also help countries understand existing mandates in a more substantive way. A review of progress on the Doha Round is also important considering that the global economic and trade landscape has undergone considerable transformation since the Round’s inception.
In addition, it is important for small states, LDCs and SSA countries to assess the impact of new issues on their economies and to think strategically, particularly given their limited capacity to effectively engage in all WTO discussions. An assessment of the Doha Round coupled with the prioritisation of issues that are achievable would enable LDCs, small states and SSA countries not only to understand the issues under discussion but also to be more proactive, with a view to achieving incremental gains in areas of interest to them. In addition, it would allow LDCs, small states and SSA countries to provide the required policy guidance to contribute to the negotiating process.
Collin Zhuawu is Trade Adviser in the Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva and Teddy Y. Soobramanien is a.i. Head and Economic Adviser of the International Trade Policy Section, Commonwealth Secretariat. Any views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Commonwealth Secretariat.