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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
Connecting the WTO with people
Mike MooreMike Moore is Director-General of the World Trade Organization.
Keywords Globalization, World Trade Organization
Globalisation is not new. People, products and money have long poured across state borders. Indeed, by some measures the world economy was more integrated a century ago than it is now. But the big difference now is that national governments no longer try to deal with these international issues in isolation. They work together as never before.
This is a very positive development. We ought to be cheering it from the rooftops. After all, the easy option for any government is to muddle on alone and to blame any failures on foreigners. Thankfully, we have learned the lessons of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Beggar-thy-neighbour policies end up making beggars of us all.
The contrast with the past 50 years could not be greater. By working together with other countries, we are making much more of our potential. As international trade has grown in leaps and bounds, rising 17-fold in 50 years, the world economy has become six times bigger. In both rich and poor countries, people are three times better off than they were in 1950. Life expectancy in developing countries has risen from 41 to 62 years, infant mortality has more than halved, while the adult literacy rate is up from 40 per cent to 70 per cent. Of course, there is still too much misery in the world. But history shows that the cure for it lies with greater global integration, not less.
Yet the multilateral trading system is now judged not only on what it achieves, but also on how it achieves it. Decisions taken by governments in Geneva can seem detached from the cut and thrust of domestic politics through which people scrutinise what governments do in their name. This apparent remoteness undermines the perceived legitimacy of the usually good work governments do at the WTO.
True, all WTO agreements are reached by a consensus of its 140 member governments. In most countries, these agreements are then ratified by elected national parliaments. This is democracy at work. But for many people, that is not democratic enough. As governments' work at the WTO increasingly touches on sensitive issues that affect people directly, such as what they eat and how clean is the air they breathe, people want to know more about what their representatives are up to. They also want more opportunities to make their views known. In short, they want international politics to be more like domestic politics.
What to do? One option is to jettison our agencies of international co-operation. If each country set its own trade laws, worries about the imperfections of international democracy would presumably disappear. But so too would the benefits of that co-operation: better jobs, better hospitals and better schools.
Another option is to treat the world as if it were a nation state writ large. There could be world elections to a world parliament and even a world government. That too would solve the immediate problem. But it is hardly realistic. Although some groups, such as NGOs, the Socialist International, the Democratic Union, and multinational companies, operate across borders, there is no such thing as a world electorate. Europe's 350 million people would not accept being continually outvoted by China's 1,300 million. Nor is it desirable: most decisions that affect New Zealanders are still better taken in New Zealand than at a global level.
The final, and by far the best, option is to build on what we have already. We need to reconnect the WTO with ordinary people. There will always be some tension between the need for international co-operation and the inadequacy of international democracy. But it can be reduced. The WTO is already open and accountable in many respects. Nearly all WTO documents are placed on our Web site immediately. We have recently expanded our press office. I hold regular meetings with parliamentarians and make a point of testifying before parliamentary committees as often as possible. We host regular briefings for NGOs, which also participate in various WTO gatherings and symposia. Even so, we can do better, indeed we must.
First, the WTO needs to be more open, so people can judge whether their government is carrying out its mandate here. WTO rules are all publicly available, but perhaps the arguments and reasoning that shape their formation should be too.
Second, governments could improve their domestic accountability. Most of the responsibility is theirs. Better procedures could be developed for informing the public about their work at the WTO, just as some European Union members have done about their work in Brussels.
Third, national parliaments could become more involved in the WTO's work. Parliamentarians could do more to bridge the gap between the WTO and voters by holding public hearings and better engaging the public at home.
Fourth, the public could participate more at the WTO. The public will never be in negotiating rooms; this is a government-to-government organisation. But there are doubtless ways of improving the situation. The WTO is already reaching out to people through discussion groups and communications on our Web site. We can do more.
These ideas are by no means exhaustive. Yet critics will object that the WTO will grind to a halt if it becomes more open. I disagree. A WTO that is seen to be open will have more legitimacy. A more legitimate WTO will be more effective. That will benefit everyone, not least our member governments. The WTO cannot escape from politics. We should welcome greater scrutiny. We have plenty to be proud of.