It is common knowledge that the Doha Round of trade negotiations has long been dead. Yet the fundamental basis of the Doha Round, namely, that the WTO must mainstream development in all its work is a sound one and worth pursuing. The WTO is on the verge of getting fresh top leadership which is a very good thing. The substantial challenge, however, is to build a consensus around a common work programme and a negotiating agenda.
There is no gainsaying the fact that there is a backlash against globalisation, free trade and by extension, against international organisations such as WTO. People who have lost out from technological disruption, globalisation or free trade have found an important voice and have started asserting themselves through political choices made in national elections. These are subsequently reflected in country negotiating positions in the WTO. This is hard to ignore anymore; on the other hand, it is for organisations such as WTO to demonstrate that it is on the side of the underdog and the vulnerable in this political battle that is being played out. What better way to do this than by announcing that the WTO’s future work programme and negotiating agenda will be based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) so painstakingly agreed upon by all UN members in 2015.
A new SDG round of trade negotiations has numerous advantages for the WTO.
First, it is hard to disagree with the SDGs themselves since all countries have publicly committed themselves to achieving it within a definite time frame; so, dubbed the Agenda 2030.
Second, it will be a splendid opportunity for the much-maligned WTO to get its mojo back and secure endorsement for the principle of free trade. After all, it is a matter of consensus among economists of all hues that trade is indeed the best instrument for achieving many of the SDGs.
Third, the WTO’s future work programme and negotiating agenda must be directly linked to the objectives of the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO i.e. raising standards of living, ensuring full employment, expanding the production and trade in goods and services, the optimal use of resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development and finally to do this for all countries at different levels of economic development. This is very similar to SDG number eight which talks of promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth as well as full and productive employment and decent work for all.
What would this entail in practical terms for the WTO? First, the WTO must carefully recalibrate the Special and Differential Treatment for countries that deserve it. Rather than junk the whole concept or excessively politicise it, there is a simple metric which can be used to redefine it. The SDG number one is described thus: to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. The best place to begin for achieving this goal is with the regions where “extreme poverty” is widely prevalent. The two geographical regions which display “extreme poverty” are: parts of Africa and South Asia. It goes without saying therefore that countries belonging to these two geographical regions must get Special and Differential Treatment without any question. Extreme poverty is now well defined and is backed by the Oxford Multidimensional Index of Poverty, so objective criteria may be utilised for deciding countries which are eligible. This automatically takes care of the American argument that countries such as Singapore and South Korea (or China for that matter) cannot lay automatic claim to Special and Differential Treatment.
The multilateral negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies is proceeding apace and must be concluded by the next Ministerial Conference in June 2021. Again, these negotiations must be consistent with SDG number fourteen which is defined thus: Conserve and use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Developing countries and least-developed countries whose citizens depend on fisheries for their livelihood must be treated appropriately in these negotiations.
Agriculture has always been a contentious subject in past WTO negotiations. Again, the SDG number two provides sufficient guidance in this critical area: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. The US, EU and other rich countries have long subsidised their agriculture, often with disastrous consequences for the economies of developing and least-developed countries. It is time to make amends. The credibility of the WTO, no less, is at stake.
Electronic Commerce poses enormous challenges for developing and least-developed countries. These challenges have to do with digital infrastructure, digital literacy and data sovereignty. The SDG number nine that talks of building resilient infrastructure, promotes inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation should guide these negotiations. There is a steep learning curve ahead for several countries about the implications of digitalisation in the context of the fourth industrial revolution and developed countries need to take into account the serious digital divide that currently exists when they pursue their national interests in these negotiations.
The above is obviously not an exhaustive list but an illustrative one. More crucially, it provides a template for the new round of trade negotiations and the work programme of the WTO by anchoring it in the all-important SDGs. Such a move can kill two birds with one stone: to revive the negotiating agenda as well as to resuscitate the WTO itself.
(Dr Mohan Kumar is a former Indian negotiator at the WTO, former Indian Ambassador to France and currently Chairman, RIS)