In December 2013, at the WTO’s ninth ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia, member states finally reached agreement on a small package of measures that appeared to breathe new life into the otherwise moribund Doha round of trade negotiations. Was this yet another example of the WTO delivering unequal benefits? If the WTO does not, by its own reckoning, have a development portfolio, should it be taking steps towards the UN?
The capture of a significant proportion of the global development agenda by a plethora of nongovernmental philanthropic institutions, religious bodies and civil society organizations is much debated. The intergovernmental challenge to the UN Development System (UNDS) is far less frequently the focus of attention; and when it is, commentary tends to center on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The -- almost never mentioned -- challenge posed by the increasing encroachment of WTO into debates about global development is a little different.
The WTO categorically claims that it is not a development institution. However, it is ideologically and operationally central because the dominant approach to early 21st century development is predicated on the assumption that it is by increasing the volume and value of trade that growth is generated and substantive economic gain is realized --- hence, the equation-cum-mantra: trade = growth = development. But, the WTO, like its predecessor the GATT, has persistently presided over trade negotiations that have produced asymmetrical bargains favouring the advanced industrial states. This is entirely at odds with existing ideas about economic and social advancement in the UN system.
Reform of the multilateral trading system is essential if trade is going to be a driver of substantive and more equitable economic development. Yet, despite its well noted faults, a head of steam for a wholesale root-and-branch reform of the WTO is absent. Few have pressed for a radical overhaul of the system which would install a governance structure that is more democratic, representative, accountable, and appropriate, or which connects the way we govern trade with the way we manage other aspects of global life.
In this regard, the kind of trade governance we have under the WTO is important to the UNDS not only because it threatens the way development is understood in the UN system, but also because it underscores the necessity of bringing the WTO more closely into the UN orbit and to improve and enhance co-operation therein, with the IMF, World Bank, UNDP and the Economic and Social Council.
We fail to heed the necessity of WTO reform, or its importance to and relationship with the UNDS, at our peril.