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Background Note

May 2000

The Importance of the WTO Proceedings for Members' Capitals


The Importance of following the WTO


Ways forward


I. Introduction

1. It is a fact that some Members do not follow closely the proceedings of the WTO. This paper argues that Members who do not follow WTO proceedings are at a disadvantage in relation to those who do. It also identifies the value of doing so, difficulties Members encounter in closer involvement with the WTO and its activities and suggests some ways forward. (It is assumed that countries in the process of accession will as a matter of necessity follow proceedings closely. However, these comments may apply to Observers also.)

2. It is relevant that it is a preoccupation of the major players (and of the present Director-General of the WTO), that the less-advantaged Members (LACs) should participate in the WTO to the maximum extent possible.

II. The importance of following the WTO

3. It is important to follow the WTO because:

  • participation by the maximum number of Members strengthens the multilateral process and trading system;
  • today more than ever there is a heightened awareness that all Members must be heard and their views taken into account. It remains an important consideration that, except in limited circumstances, the basis for decision-taking in the WTO is consensus;

  • the rules and trade-related actions are taken within the remit of the WTO. In order to react promptly and efficiently Members have to know what is happening in Geneva;

  • membership carries rights and obligations that have to be protected, understood and met; of immediate relevance are the consultations on the extension of transition periods in the TRIPS, TRIMS and Customs Valuation agreements;

  • there is increasing public as well as business awareness of the WTO's activities. In particular, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that oppose the globalisation process have taken an interest in the WTO and can cause domestic problems. Considered reactions to this require a close knowledge of what is happening in Geneva, and of what is likely to happen.

  • the only effective way of participating in trade negotiations is by being able to directly influence the thinking of the WTO process.

4. Procedures under the WTO Agreements, e.g. the Agreement on Implementation of Article VI (antidumping), on Textiles and Clothing, on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, provide for action by Members that can adversely affect the interests of other Members. It would be important for a Member to be aware for example, of the current thinking in the WTO on the implementation of the antidumping agreement, in case it receives a notification of the potential levying of antidumping duties against its imports. Similarly, LAC Members would be able to defend their interests if, for example, their exports under certain textile quota are inappropriately restricted; or if their agricultural exports are stopped under a sanitary or phytosanitary measure.

III. Problems

5. The major problems inhibiting participation are:

  • lack of human resources, specifically staff skilled in the agreements and with the requisite personality;

  • competing priorities within the administrations of developing countries for scarce human resources;

  • lack of finance;

  • lack of motivation, perhaps in part given the above.

6. On the lack of human resources, ideally Members should identify staff with the appropriate background (say a first degree with an economics element), and arrange specific training and career postings in the areas of the WTO agreements, ideally taking advantage of programmes organised by the trade-related institutions such as WTO, UNCTAD or ITC. However, such is the wide span of topics, from the traditional tariff issues to the highly technical intellectual property and services elements, that training, or experience, is at best partial. Team working is therefore essential, the key staff member being the official whose job is to monitor and coordinate action. Ideally this should be done from Geneva, where the informal relations and liaisons are established, but failing this from capital, using Geneva contacts.

7. The work of officials appointed to follow the WTO is particularly demanding. This is because beyond the intellectual demands of the topics per se and the organisational skills needed for effective team working, there is the need to 'network': the diplomatic skills of creating informal liaisons with like minded and often just as important, with un-like minded Members to develop a 'feel' for the organisation and its activities. Fortunately, within a short time of appointment to Geneva, these latter skills are easily learned. But the key aspect is being in Geneva. Without this, it is difficult to make and nurture these vital links.

8. On competing priorities, it will always be easy for Members with scarce human resources to find a reason to keep good staff in capital on more immediately productive activities or engaged on more obviously political activities elsewhere.

9. On the lack of finance, there is of course no administration, of a developed or a developing Member, that is not to a degree constrained by finance. This can manifest itself in the inability to recruit, train and retain appropriate staff and in the provision of funds for accommodation, travel and hospitality. This is an aspect of priorities and there are various means of providing external assistance to LACs with such as training and accommodation (the latter for LDCs only).

10. On the lack of motivation, it is often stated by the smaller Members that it is not easy to be motivated to provide the quality of staff and commit to the major expenditure of training and appointment to Geneva when there is a sense that the WTO is for the 'big players'; that there is little that the smaller countries can really achieve.

11. Another de-motivating factor is the long time span of negotiations. To protect national interests properly, ideally staff should be appointed to WTO oversight posts for the period of a negotiation, or at least with some continuity in mind. To tie up good staff in this way is never an attractive proposition in capitals.

IV. Ways forward

12. The ideal is for Members to recognise, despite the resource constraints and competing priorities, the fundamental importance of having one's own representative on the ground in Geneva. In this case, factors to keep in mind are:

  • it may pay (both in economic and in political terms) to accept that the WTO should be a high priority;

  • the need for personal links with the WTO Secretariat, the ITC, UNCTAD, the WB, the IMF and other relevant regional and international organisations;

  • the assistance available from the Swiss Government towards the cost of office accommodation of LDCs;

  • the role of AITIC in providing advice on all aspects of setting-up in Geneva, including training, permits and accommodation;

  • AITIC's assistance to missions in Geneva (and to non-resident Members and Observers) through its on-going programme of briefing notes, seminars and focused coordinating sessions;

13. If circumstances preclude setting up an office in Geneva, the next best is to cover WTO activities from a neighbouring capital. AITIC maintains regular contacts with non-resident missions in Brussels, London and Paris and can provide the same focused briefing and linking services as for Geneva resident missions, although it is evident that there is no substitute to following WTO activities in situ.

14. It is important that mission staff, whether Geneva resident or not, are able properly to brief capital-based staff. This can be through the transmission of Secretariat papers but also through the more relevant, from a LAC’s standpoint, papers from organisations that have developing-country interests as their main mandate, including UNCTAD, ITC, the South Centre and AITIC. It is important that capital-based (policy-making) staff come as often as possible to participate in Geneva sessions.



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