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    A Well-informed Business Community: Moving Towards Advocacy

     

     
     
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2002

    Since Seattle, the business community has shown remarkable growth in becoming better informed about the evolving multilateral trading system. This article traces the path of business dialogue with government, moving from consultation to participation to advocacy.

    Governments negotiate trade agreements but companies do business. The two are, therefore, natural partners when it comes to preparing and executing negotiating strategies as well as implementing the agreements that emerge. This key partnership, which can make a big difference in reaping the benefits of the multilateral trading system, is growing stronger every day, especially in developing and transition countries. The reasons are threefold:

    • The business community is experiencing the impact of changes in the trading system.
    • Trade negotiators increasingly recognize the need to involve the business community in designing negotiating elements.
    • Both sides have intensified their efforts to reach out and respond to each other.


    Government initiatives

    Attitudes of governments and public servants have changed from the days when trade negotiations were the sole concern of a small group of specialists, working in isolation in special cells in the ministry of trade, who went on frequent missions to Geneva. Today, in most developing countries, negotiations have become the joint concern of a number of ministries and agencies. The practice of dealing with trade policy issues within the confines of government bureaucracy has yielded to the "consultative mode" of open public debates and dialogue with business interests, even in countries that did not have such traditions. Governments are realizing the usefulness of engaging the business community's interest in shaping negotiating strategies. It helps formulate a better national strategy, fosters accountability and improves implementation of the eventual agreements.

    Business plays its role

    The business sector is becoming more and more aware of the role it has to play and is gearing up to it. The businessperson, even the small and medium-sized entrepreneur, is becoming aware of the importance of keeping in touch with ongoing developments in the multilateral trading environment. The number of agreements concluded and the range of issues covered, coupled with the effects of globalization, have reduced the time lag between the conclusion of agreements and real impact on day-to-day business. Businesses are realizing that, in order to exploit new opportunities and prepare for fresh challenges, they have the need, the right and the responsibility to contribute to the process of negotiations.

    The changing attitude and role of the business community over the years could be traced as follows:

    Attitude

    • Uninterested - "Trade negotiations have no impact on me. I need not waste my time keeping in touch with what the diplomats do in Geneva."
    • Interested spectator - "Something interesting seems to be happening. Perhaps I should keep myself informed."
    • Implicated - "Some of these decisions can widen my business operations and open up markets. I should find out more and see if any of them can adversely affect my business."


    Role

    • Consultative - "I am glad the government is keeping me informed and consulting me on what they are doing."
    • Participative - "I can provide arguments and contribute my point of view to the negotiators in preparing their strategy."
    • Advocacy - "My own studies and analyses show that possible advantages can be secured in some areas and some threats can be averted. I had better inform and persuade the government team to consider these while negotiating."


    Steps to advocacy

    Progress along this path is governed by a number of factors.

    First, for a dialogue to take place, a mechanism must exist involving the appropriate interlocutors. This could be regular meetings of the Board of Trade, consultative committees with business representatives, consultations with commodity boards, manufacturers' and exporters' associations, chambers of commerce and key non-governmental organizations.

    Joint working groups, task forces and active national networks of interests including ministries, business, academia, the financial sector and trade lawyers can be powerful mechanisms.

    Next, for this dialogue to be effective, the private sector should be able to provide meaningful insight. Often, the private sector has little to contribute. It is unfamiliar with the issues and processes and lacks the ability to provide analytical inputs. It does not have access to the basic information, training and skills needed for this purpose. This reduces the dialogue to a mere consultative process.

    Finally, if the consultative process is to graduate into a participative process and eventually into advocacy, well-targeted technical assistance - tailor-made to suit the business community - is required. Business communities need information on what has been agreed, what is being presented for negotiations and what the business implications will be for issues under discussion. They need training to implement agreements already concluded and to benefit from the gains in negotiation. They need to learn how to analyse the business implications of different scenarios and lay these out before their negotiators.

    Providing appropriate platforms for dialogue, facilitating them and equipping business with the information and skills to move from a consultative to a participative role and onwards to advocacy should be essential elements of technical assistance programme in the context of the Doha Development Agenda.

    R. Badrinath is Director of ITC's Division of Trade Support Services. Among the Division's responsibilities is the World Tr@de Net programme and other activities related to the multilateral trading system. Mr Badrinath can be contacted at badrinath@intracen.org


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