Context: Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed as the first female and first African head of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
- The WTO has 164 members, accounting for 98% of world trade.
- Decisions are made by the entire membership. This is typically by consensus.
- The WTO’s agreements have to be ratified by all members’ parliaments.
- The WTO’s top-level decision-making body is the Ministerial Conference, which meets usually every two years.
- Below this is the General Council (normally ambassadors and heads of delegation based in Geneva but sometimes officials sent from members’ capitals) which meets several times a year in the Geneva headquarters.
- The General Council also meets as the Trade Policy Review Body and the Dispute Settlement Body.
- At the next level, the Goods Council, Services Council and Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Council report to the General Council.
- The WTO’s Trade Policy Review Mechanism is designed to improve transparency, to create a greater understanding of the trade policies adopted by WTO members and to assess their impact.
- Many members see the reviews as constructive feedback on their policies.
- All WTO members must undergo periodic scrutiny, each review containing reports by the member concerned and the WTO Secretariat.
- The WTO Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland and is headed by a Director- General.
- Since decisions are taken by the WTO’s members, the Secretariat does not itself have a decision-making role.
- The Secretariat’s main duties are to supply technical support for the various councils/ committees and the ministerial conferences, to provide legal assistance in the dispute settlement process, to provide technical assistance for developing economies, to analyse world trade and advises governments wishing to become members of the WTO.
- The WTO’s objective is to help trade flow smoothly, freely and predictably. It does this by:
- administering trade agreements
- acting as a forum for trade negotiations
- settling trade disputes
- reviewing national trade policies
- building the trade capacity of developing economies
- cooperating with other international organizations
Important Landmarks in recent times
- At the 9th Ministerial Conference in Bali in 2013, WTO members struck the Agreement on Trade Facilitation, which aims to reduce border delays by slashing red tape.
- When fully implemented, this Agreement – the first multilateral accord reached at the WTO – will cut trade costs by more than 14% and will lift global exports by as much as US$ 1 trillion per year.
- The expansion of the Information Technology Agreement – concluded at the 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in 2015 – eliminated tariffs on an additional 200 IT products valued at over US$ 1.3 trillion per year.
- Another outcome of the Conference was a decision to abolish agricultural export subsidies, fulfilling one of the key targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goal on “Zero hunger”.
- Most recently, an amendment to the WTO’s Intellectual Property Agreement entered into force in 2017, easing poor economies’ access to affordable medicines.
- The same year saw the Trade Facilitation Agreement enter into force.
- Next Ministerial Conference i.e. 12th MC will take place in June 2021 at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. the last one (MC11) was organized in Buenos Aires in 2017.
Other Initiatives at WTO
- The Aid for Trade initiative, launched by WTO members in 2005, is designed to help developing economies build trade capacity, enhance their infrastructure and improve their ability to benefit from trade- opening opportunities.
- The Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) is the only multilateral partnership dedicated exclusively to assist least developed countries (LDCs) in their use of trade as an engine for growth, sustainable development and poverty reduction.
- The EIF partnership of 51 countries, 24 donors and eight partner agencies, including the WTO, works closely with governments, development organizations, civil society and academia.
- Another partnership supported by the WTO is the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), set up to help developing economies meet international standards for food safety, plant and animal health and access global markets. The WTO houses the Secretariat and manages the STDF trust fund, which has provided financing of over US$ 40 million to support projects in low-income economies.
- The WTO recognizes as least-developed countries (LDCs) those countries which have been designated as such by the United Nations.
- There are currently 47 least-developed countries on the UN list, 36 of which to date have become WTO members.
- There are no WTO definitions of “developed” or “developing” countries.
- Developing countries in the WTO are designated on the basis of self-selection although this is not necessarily automatically accepted in all WTO bodies.