WTO members push for development

An informal World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial gathering has emphasised the need for a political discussion on development.

Held on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meetings on Friday, 26 January, the session served as an opportunity for an open and frank exchange among invited Ministers on the WTO.

In a statement after the meeting, the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) said the gathering was an opportunity to assess the 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) that was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December. The meeting also reflected on how to ensure the WTO’s relevance to all members.

The conference is the highest decision making body in the WTO and is attended by 164 countries, which are members of the WTO.

It noted that global trade grew by 3.2% in 2017, while also emphasising the need for collective action to ensure sustained global trade growth that supports economic growth and job creation.

Limited outcomes

However, the participants noted with concern that MC11 yielded limited outcomes and resulted in ministerial decisions on just five issues with limited scope. These include decisions to secure a deal on the elimination of fisheries subsidies by MC12 in December 2019 and a rollover of the moratorium on taxation of electronic transactions, with continuation of the e-commerce work programme.

Speaking on behalf of the Africa Group, dti Minister Rob Davies reiterated concerns of a lack of outcomes on development issues of interest to Africa. The Minister agreed with the need for a deeper reflection in the WTO that takes into account the backlash against globalisation and trade due to growing inequality and uncertainty amongst citizens, as well as a political discussion on development.

“To regain support and legitimacy, we should promote an inclusive developmental multilateralism. The test of any and all rules is whether they promote inclusivity and development or its opposite: marginalisation and inequality.

“For Africa, Agenda 2063 is the overarching framework for integration, industrialisation and structural transformation and the WTO should support these objectives and provide policy space for developing countries to industrialise,” said Minister Davies.

Many participants in the meeting emphasised the centrality of the WTO in promoting a rules based trading system, and acknowledged that the WTO is facing challenges, which include lack of progress and divergent views on the Doha Development Agenda.

Concerns were also raised with the current impasse in the filling of open positions of members of the WTO Appellate Body (which is a standing body of seven that hears appeals from reports issued by panels in disputes brought by WTO members) and the risk this poses to a functional dispute settlement mechanism.

Serving interests of member countries

There was a shared sentiment at the meeting that a political dialogue is needed to ensure the WTO remains relevant and serves the interests of all its members.

Most members emphasised the need to continue work on fisheries subsidies, with a view to have an outcome in the next Ministerial Conference towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goal 14.6. This relates to the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development, and the prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

On the remaining Doha issues, Minister Davies reiterated the need to continue to explore possibilities for outcomes on agriculture, especially disciplines in trade distorting domestic support, a core issue of interests; cotton; food security; and industrialisation. He also stressed the need to respect past ministerial decisions.

Friday’s meeting was attended by 29 countries from across all regions. South Africa has been a member of the WTO since 1 January 1995.