Friday, October 3, 2008

A Worrying Picture: Contemplating the World Trade Organisation

In preparing for my next essay I've been doing some reading about the World Trade Organisation and to be honest it's all a bit worrying. The WTO appears to have a lot more power than many people might realise, including myself. The rules that are put into place limit the ability for governments to have their own policies that promote the interests of their own populations. For the wealthy and powerful countries in the WTO it does not appear to be a problem. However, it is an issue for low income countries.

The balance of power in making decision about international trade policies is definitely in the hands of the rich and powerful countries and the processes for negotiating and decision making seem questionable. A seemingly ridiculous process for countries who want to join the WTO, mechanisms that are balanced in favour of rich countries, secret meetings and policies that on paper address the needs of devloping countries, but in practice are not happening are the elements that form this dangerous organisation.

I believe that aid and trade together can make a difference in alleviating poverty in the world. However an organisation like the WTO is not going to help. The world needs an organisation whose primary focus is improving the lives of the poor, not just a side show of something else.

Reading: Behind the scenes at the WTO:the real world of international trade negotiations lessons of Cancun, Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa, 2004.


  1. Hi

    You obviously have not been following developments in the WTO lately, where developing countries, such as India, are standing up to the rich, developed countries! Things have changed since the Seattle demonstrations in 1999.

    Not that it is a perfect organisation by any stretch - far from it!! I have first hand experience of what is wrong with it.

    I would ask you this though: what chance would developing countries who need to trade have in a world without the WTO? How would they ensure fair treatment from the rich, powerful developed countries, who would still be rich and powerful, while developing countries (for the most part) remain poor and marginalised.

    The real world is a bit more complicating than just writing off the WTO as "bad" and something else, which doesn't yet exist as "better". I am just saying that just maybe the WTO may be better than nothing.

  2. Thanks for your comment aspiring polymath. I did not mean to paint the WTO in such black and white terms, although I realise this is how it has come across. I do realise the these things are much more complex and I thank you for reminding me.

    I am new to this area, especially the trade side of development and my post is simply in response to my early reading (Jawara & Kwa,2004). Do you have any suggestions for other reading?

    You ask a pertinent question regarding what would happen without the WTO. Perhaps something is better than nothing. Do you think that the WTO will be able to continue into the future as is and achieve its goals or will it eventually be replaced by a new WTO?

  3. Aspiring Polymath:
    Yes, things have moved on a bit, but not enough to be complacent. Two things haven't changed. First, while the larger and (mostly) better-off off developing countries like Brazil and China have a bit more say, the smaller and poorer countries (including all of Sub-Saharan Africa except South Africa) are still completely excluded. Second, while these larger developing countries can block the major powers' proposals, that's all they can do. Even though they represent a large majority of the membership and of the world population, developing countries still cannot get their own items onto the agenda.

    The best we can hope for in terms of an agreement is for the developed world to make just enough concessions to the richer developing countries to get them on board - leaving those in greatest need to lose yet again. There is no substitute for a fundamental reform of the WTO so that it reflects processes and standards that might reasonably be considered democratic in national or local government.

    David Woodward

  4. Thanks for your comment David.
    Much of the reading that I have been doing echoes your sentiment.