A possible development journey in a post-Nairobi WTO

17 March 2016

The WTO Tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya was a success with some important agriculture-related decisions, a ministerial declaration, and decisions on select least developed country issues.[1]  These decisions and a declaration were a mere possibility when WTO members left Geneva for Nairobi, with some of them holding contending views on whether the Doha Round negotiating framework, the single undertaking, would survive. Many have noted that these views are now recorded in the Nairobi declaration.

In addition, concerns are mounting about the threat of robust activity of regional and so-called mega-regional agreements outside of WTO, including in Africa.  However, activity on the regional trade platform, which has happened in parallel for years, should not cause WTO negotiators to falter in their gait.  

As delegations at the WTO recharge their engines, major themes that previously hindered consensus on remaining Doha Development Agenda (DDA) issues still linger.  However, beginning with priority issues of weaker developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), both on remaining DDA issues and any other challenges for them on the global scene today, could form a good foundation, to catalyse the path toward a successful development outcome for the DDA.

While WTO’s negotiating function suffered turbulence in the last decade, the Bali ministerial conference, and now Nairobi, provided some signs of light.  The penchant might be to wait for major developed WTO members to guide the rest of the membership, predicated on the need for the resolution of their redlines first.   

Interestingly, WTO members that are party to the same trade agreements outside of WTO, tend to be less contentious inside of the WTO.[2]  One might ask if the EU and US conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and India, China, and Brazil negotiated free trade agreements with the US, would WTO negotiations be easier?[3]  Post-Nairobi reflection may indeed present an opportunity for weaker developing countries and LDCs to engage with each other.  Avoiding the lure of polarised approaches to negotiations, progressive bilateral and small group engagement by developing countries with other WTO members might yield practical development-oriented outputs.  In the year 2000, after the Seattle ministerial conference in 1999, fuelled by the prospect of launching a round in 2001, WTO members took decisions in the General Council on developing country implementation proposals (precursors to the SDT proposals).  Though these decisions mainly concern the extension of transition periods to implement WTO agreements, they were touted as “confidence building” measures. Other decisions on implementation issues were agreed in different Councils and subsidiary bodies such as on trade-related investment measures (TRIMs) and Article 27.4 of the the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, leading up to the Doha ministerial decision on implementation-related issues and concerns in 2001.[4]      

Developing countries in the WTO might form their own clusters to refine specific elements to conclude the DDA starting from the needs of the LDCs working up the chain of developing countries in need to form tranches of practical decisions.  Perhaps one WTO member’s idea offered at Davos this year for a solidarity work programme in the WTO can provoke discussions on ways to resolve areas in the DDA, particularly development. However, there may be little interest in propagating “work programmes” and more of an appetite for concrete outputs.

Unlike year 2000, 2016 follows a successful ministerial conference that unfurled what could be a turning point for remaining DDA areas.   Opportunities could emerge where developing country objectives from the DDA and their contemporary challenges intersect with global challenges raised by other members.  Results might be achieved in a manner that does not add new burdens on the weaker members of the WTO, but instead enhances mutually beneficial gains for the system.

Author: Alicia D. Greenidge, President, Summit Alliances International; former US trade  negotiator; currently adviser to developing countries and Least Developed Countries, and WTO accession countries, on WTO and trade matters. 




[1] Some Members also concluded the expanded plurilateral information technology agreement (ITA-II),with MFN benefits for all WTO members.

[2] After the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement some developed country parties may seek less concessions from for example, Malaysia, at WTO.

[3] The 2004 “India Shining” reverberations may still pose severe challenges for India on the agriculture pillar of the DDA.

[4] Every working body of the institution has a negotiating function and different mechanisms have been used.