Amid recent news of the impending change at the top, not all observers are as pessimistic about the WTO’s near future. With the Indian Express reporting that outgoing Director-General recently advised the next round of negotiators, and by implication the next Director-General, to aim for “low-hanging fruits” instead of holding to grand aspirations or seeking an unforeseen breakthrough between the more than decade long impasse in the WTO others continue to hope for something more it is not clear just what the new D-G’s goals will include. (The Times of India also noted Lamy’s low expectations.)
GEGAFrica released a notice two weeks ago expressing a genuine (if, sadly, naïve) optimism that reaching some agreements on freer agricultural trade would allow African nations to diversify into export oriented industrialization. The authors and optimistic readers should be careful not to characterize this hypothetical, future shift as a potential avenue that would allow African nations to convert their vast natural resources along with inexpensive labor into a remarkable industrial capacity rivaling that of East Asia. And yet, it is fairly easy to envision just such an outcome if African agricultural exporters could access consumer markets in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia.
GEGAFrica is a new source of information online created by collaboration between the South African Treasury, development promotion agencies by the governments of the UK, Germany, and Switzerland. Other participants include UNECA (UN Economic Commission for Africa), and economic agencies from the governments of Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia as well as the Kenyan-based African Economic Resource Consortium. In short, interested observers of African economic development ought to bookmark GEGAfrica and check in once in a while. There are especially relevant blogs by African academics commenting on the WTO leadership contest here and here. Dr. Birkbeck expresses a hope that the new D-G can communicate the imperative need for a revived, future-oriented WTO which can effectively conclude new trade rules which will be of benefit to the developing nations, although she notes that it is a good pool of candidates from the developing world, she frustratingly declines to offer any suggestion on which would likely be most effective. South Africa Institute of International Affairs Economic Diplomacy Programme intern Azwimpheleli Langalanga evaluates each of the nine candidates, notes disappointment that South Africa did not offer someone for leadership, and notes that the unlikely selection of either of the two African candidates is likely an expected outcome, that this is all preliminary politicking before the selection of leadership for the upcoming UN Conference on Trade and Development, another competing venue for trade negotiations in the absence of substance at the WTO.
Of course, not all observers are as optimistic. Columbia University Professor of Economics Jagdish Bhagwati, best-selling author of In Defense of Globalization, bewailed the retreat of multilateral trade negotiations into bilateral conferences which inevitably include far fewer participants. As he notes in an interview, digested by the East Asia Forum, these bilateral negotiations are less messy and allow powerful nations to exert influence on developing nations, hence their preference by developed nations such as the US. And yet, the complex network of trade agreements made outside multilateral frameworks leave many nations without trade barrier relief, and developing nations fail to acquire the collective benefit of collaborative negotiation. Bhagwati is critical of failed regional trade agreements such as the ongoing TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). The undermining of the WTO by these alternative trade resolution venues is alarming, of course, to the developing nations and Bhagwati is emphatic that smaller nations must work to secure the role of the WTO in future trade negotiations or trade rules will no longer emerge with development priorities or more open access to export markets that developing nations desperately seek.
Despite the optimism of GEGAfrica and real concern about the WTO in the face of inactivity by Bhagwati, perhaps the most amusing note about changing WTO leadership is the frank admission of total ambivalence by the Kremlin. According to the Moscow Times, Russia’s Economic Development Ministry head of trade negotiations Maxim Medvedkov said: “As a recently acceded member, we will not assume many of the Doha round's commitments to liberalize access to markets for goods and services, but we will be able to take advantage of the obligations of other countries.” It doesn’t get more honest than that, and if Russia plans on doing nothing to liberalize markets while also benefiting from the WTO’s obligations on other countries then what should developing nations expect from the US? Well, probably not such an honest response.