The 11th Ministerial Conference of the WTO in Buenos Aires was a disappointment. The meeting concluded without any new deals and no signs that the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) will be adopted as a multilateral package.
The Results of Buenos Aires
The WTO Members issued four ministerial decisions and adopted several ministerial statements. The former deal with Small Economies, Fisheries Subsidies, Electronic Commerce, andTRIPS Non-Violation and Situation Complaints. These matters have been on the WTO agenda for quite some time, some going back to the 1990s.
The more innovative outcomes of Buenos Aires came in the form of ministerial statements (by subgroups of WTO Members) to tackle new problems. These cover work programmes for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), Investment Facilitation, Fossil Fuel Subsidies Reform, a Joint Ministerial Statement on Services Domestic Regulation, as well as a Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce. For the latter a first meeting is planned for the first quarter of 2018.
These joint ministerial statements, although “plurilateral” in nature, are open to all WTO Members. They may provide the impetus for novel approaches for structuring international economic relations. Eventual outcomes may take the form of sectoral, plurilateral, or perhaps even multilateral agreements. New disciplines could be adopted.
The critical questions will then be about the extent of member participation and about implementation and compliance. The consequences for those nations remaining outside such arrangements are not favourable.
Why has Consensus in the WTO become so difficult?
When 164 states at different levels of economic development come together in a member-driven arrangement which adopts decisions by consensus, it is increasingly difficult to fuse highly divergent expectations and needs. During the Uruguay Round and after the end of the Cold War, the world was a different place. International political and economic conditions then favoured bold compromises to achieve multilateral governance solutions. The world has moved on since 2001, when the DDA was adopted. China has joined the WTO while the USA, once the leading supporter of multilateralism, has become a sceptic. President Trump puts “America first”.
Should the WTO prove not to be the forum generating new rules for international trade, they will be adopted elsewhere; in regional trade arrangements, through plurilateral agreements, or via domestic regulatory reforms in nation states. This is already happening in areas such as investment, competition and e-commerce.
Africa’s Challenges and Opportunities after Buenos Aires
Africa’s challenges must be addressed irrespective of what the WTO generates in terms of new multilateral disciplines. To wait for the DDA’s adoption as a multilateral agreement is a futile strategy; the world is moving on.
One of the lessons of Buenos Aires is to recognise how hard it has become to adopt new multilateral agreements and to adopt multilateral rules dealing with sophisticated technological advances. Nigeria was the only African country to sign up for the Ministerial Statement on Electronic Commerce adopted in Buenos Aires. Another lesson is about accepting that these new rules will come to apply anyway, in regional and plurilateral formats. African firms will have to adjust, as they have done with regard to technical and safety standards for goods.
The negotiations on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offer an opportunity to bring Africa on speed as far as these developments are concerned; if necessary on a variable geometry basis. Variable geometry has already been accepted as one of the guiding principles for both the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) and the AfCFTA.
Irrespective of whether there will be a transformation of multilateral governance or a “hegemonic withdrawal” any time soon, African policy makers need to remain involved, informed and responsive to the needs of the time. Intra-African trade should be conducted as part of an emerging global order.