A Kinder, Gentler WTO?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/23/2008 09:10:00 AM
I was searching for something else when this op-ed in India's Financial Express caught my eye about how the "WTO has changed its spots." Unsurprisingly, most of us political science types are less enamored with the WTO than our economist counterparts. Reading the title, I reflexively thought to myself, "just what we need, another economist cheering on the WTO." Imagine the shock I received when I looked at the byline and found that the author was none other than Cambridge's Amrita Narlikar--another IPE type (albeit one who's far more widely known). Oh well, read the op-ed and decide for yourselves whether the new LDC-friendly WTO is in the offing, negotiation paralysis nothwithstanding:
The World Trade Organization has changed. It is a much fairer organisation than the organisation that became the target of the Seattle demonstrations in 1999, and is (at least in some important ways) a much nicer and evolved progeny of the GATT’s. Is it not time that this multilateral body gets the commitment it deserves?

A central critique of the WTO today is that the organisation fails to deliver on fair process. This was a valid criticism of the WTO ten years ago. It is an outdated and irresponsible critique to launch against the organisation today.

Improvements in decision-making and negotiation processes in the WTO are dramatic and far-reaching. The GATT, with its opaque and exclusive decision-making procedures, was labelled the ‘Rich Man’s Club’. Even after the formation of the WTO, the Seattle ministerial conference of 1999 saw riots outside and also a revolution within the organisation as its own members complained of marginalisation from the invitation-only “Green Room” meetings. Indeed, as late as the Cancun ministerial conference of 2003, excessive informality and off-the-cuff decision-making had meant that many developing countries with their small delegations found themselves disadvantaged and unable to negotiate effectively.

Changes in process at the WTO in the aftermath of the Seattle ministerial included improvements in the transparency of its small group meetings. Unlike the much more secretive Green Room meetings of earlier days, these meetings (and their participants) came to be announced in advance. Further, they were framed explicitly as consensus-building consultative meetings rather than decision-making ones. Director General Pascal Lamy deserves special credit for having reinforced the strength of institutional reform. Under his leadership of the organisation, the old core group that led the decision-making process—the so-called “Quad” comprising the EU, US, Canada, and Japan—has come to be replaced by a much more representative grouping that takes the shape of the G4, the “Five Interested Parties” or the Quintet, the G6, and most recently the G7 in the July 2008 talks. Brazil and India, along with the EU and US, have constituted—with consistency—all permutations of this core group.

Moreover, these improvements in the internal transparency of the organisation have been accompanied by unprecedented external transparency. The WTO’s website is to be commended for the richness of the information that it provides to members of the general public. Lamy’s engagement with the NGOs and other stakeholders through his blog and other e-conferences is unprecedented...