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#WTO2017: Public forum focuses on ‘trade behind the headlines’

| October 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

The final clash of the 2017 edition of the World Trade Organization (WTO) public forum was held at the headquarters of the Geneva-based institution in Switzerland, from 26-28 September 2017, writes Mass Mboup, in an exclusive from Geneva

The following are some highlights from the sessions, which were carefully curated by the external relations team led by Bernie Kuiten and Zimbabwe’s Vonai Muyambo, the new co-ordinator of the forum, who was readily available to all participants, in particular the media.

Three days of intense discussions took place. In all, around 100 sessions were organized, in particular in the south wing of the imposing William Rappard Centre, with the participation of around 1,330 delegates.

The WTO’s main communication activity, known simply as the forum, is in its 16th year. It has become an established platform for discussions and exchanges bringing together government representatives, leaders NGOs and other members of civil society.

This year, the organizers chose to focus the event on a very specific theme: ‘Trade: Beyond the Headlines’. It was an opportunity for participants to “go beyond rhetoric and to examine in detail what benefits can be derived from trade and what are the challenges”. Starting the discussions was the head of the institution itself, Roberto Azevedo, who moderated the proceedings.

Presenting his distinguished guests on the podium for the opening plenary session, the Director-General of the WTO expressed his conviction that their presence at this forum, in view of their respective expertise, would contribute to quality exchanges, in a context where the debate on trade has rarely been so important, and at the same time so controversial.

He appealed to the public to reflect on how this system can be improved in order to offer greater benefits to the world’s population. “A lot of people in the world, and especially in developing countries, feel disconnected from economic progress, and we cannot ignore it. We have to adapt and respond to this situation,” he said, pointing out that it is imperative to take into account people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, and to integrate their concerns in discussions within the WTO.

The scene set, it was up to the speakers to weigh-in to the debate.

Consensual approach to the role of trade 

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde praised the benefits of the multilateral trading system. “Trade has helped reduce inequalities and helped millions of people around the world get out of poverty by improving their standard of living,” she said.

Wanting to be the champion of an economic model based on growth, the former French economic minister is of the opinion that “everything is better with a little growth”, alluding to a formula that was hammered home by her grandmother: “Everything is fine with a little butter.”

Another speaker whose intervention was highly anticipated was Suzanne Malcorra, minister-counsellor of the Argentinian government. Her country will host the next WTO ministerial conference scheduled to take place in Buenos Aires from 10-14 December 2017. Macorra said that she has not overestimated the technical aspects of preparations for the meeting, over which she will have to preside, preferring to focus in particular an issue at the heart of the WTO agenda: how inclusive trade can withstand the rise of protectionism.

Drawing inspiration from the Argentine model, which, as a former minister of foreign affairs, she knows well, she pointed out that her country is a good example of what protectionism means, by pointing out a certain paradox: “By closing the borders, we have contributed to raising the level of poverty in Argentina, to have opened them very quickly has put the risk of leaving many people on the sidelines. Hence, the need to implement long-term policies that allow for good planning and predictability.”

Strive Masiyiwa from Zimbabwe discussed the issue of trade inclusiveness from the point of view of African entrepreneurship. An area that, from his point of view, is good. The only problem being access to capital for a whole generation of African entrepreneurs.

Masiyiwa is himself an entrepreneur. He became famous by founding the Econet Group, a telephone company based in Harare, that went on to become one of the largest telecommunications, technology and media companies in Africa. According to him, greater integration in the global trading system has been extremely beneficial to many Africans, both in terms of connectivity and commercial capacity. Trade is a positive force, he said. But the Zimbabwean businessman is convinced that “with 300 million young people looking for work on the continent, Africa remains confronted with a level of still insufficient jobs”.

The forum also provided an opportunity for participants to discuss many other related issues. This was particularly true of the session on the phenomenon of economic migration and the role that trade can play in reducing it.

The European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), a Maastricht-based think tank, was also successful in organizing a session entitled Trade and Regional Integration for Africa’s Economic Transformation: policy to practice.

Another highlight of the forum was the session that focused on the dematerialization of foreign trade procedures: the Senegalese experience.    In the presence of the Senegalese minister of commerce, the speakers (notably Ibrahima Nour Eddine Diagne, general administrator of the economic interest group Gaïnde 2000) explained to the public how Senegal succeeded, thanks to a collaboration between the public and the private sector, in modernising its foreign trade.

Diagne noted that dematerialization is a process that should lead to performance and reliability gains for all in the developing world, before adding that this is an experience his country would like to share in the region and beyond.

Cap on MC11 at Buenos Aires  

As the 2017 Forum has concluded, all eyes are now turning to Buenos Aires for MC 11, the eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference. Given the success of the 2017 Public Forum, it can be assumed that the results obtained will not be lost and will serve as a catalyst for the further discussions scheduled for December in the Argentina capital on the west bank of the River Rio de la Plata.

Africa will be present at this meeting with the same determination and the same fighting spirit as previously in Bali and in Nairobi. In Buenos Aires, the stakes for the African continent will be very high, Roberto Azevêdo told EU Reporter between two working sessions, adding: “I am optimistic and I am hopeful that the concerns of Africans will be taken into account in our discussions.”

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Category: A Frontpage, EU, Featured Article, Switzerland, World, World Trade Organization (WTO)

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