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    Giving Voice to the "Silent Majority"


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2006

    © Jupiterimages Corp.

    The challenge to building business advocacy is to develop business-government dialogue, but also to bring in small firms, the informal sector and other parts of society.

    Government trade officials, business representatives and researchers at a "Business for Development" forum in December 2005 stressed the need for business to make its views known to government before the latter enacts domestic law on trade or establishes national positions in international trade negotiations. But they highlighted the difficulty of adopting this proactive approach in the developing world, where economic actors are often small and medium-sized firms with low bargaining power, traditional agricultural producers with little access to decision-makers and a large informal sector. Collectively, they form a vast and voiceless "silent majority".

    The forum exposed other problems facing business advocacy in developing countries, among them the weakness of business organizations and the dominant position within the WTO system of the business community from developed countries, little concerned with development issues.

    Tips to boost advocacy

    On the plus side, it also presented a number of case studies from both developed and developing countries, including several highly sophisticated campaigns, highlighting recent progress in trade policy-related advocacy. It also proposed several approaches to creating effective and more proactive business advocacy in developing countries:

    • Create guidelines for business organizations in developing countries to help them communicate better with their members and, crucially, with government. In the words of ITC Executive Director, J. Denis Bélisle, "Business and government need to get down to basics, make their views known to each other and achieve common goals in trade negotiations." The guidelines would draw from best-practice advocacy approaches from developed and developing countries.
    • Encourage North-South business dialogue to identify common interests, viewpoints and goals, build coalitions to advocate policy on issues of mutual concern, and devise joint approaches to managing issues. There might also be ways to engage with groups holding, in some cases, opposing views, under the common banner of advocacy for development.
    • Broaden communications and cooperation with non-governmental organizations and academia, and improve the use of mass media to draw attention to business concerns.

    Moving in the right direction

    The signs are hopeful. The forum assembled more than 120 participants under the banner "Fostering Trade Through Private-Public Dialogue", dedicated to promoting business-government partnerships to ensure a sustainable and strong multilateral trading system. The gathering, organized by ITC and the Agency for International Trade Information and Cooperation, was part of a series of Business for Development initiatives that ITC launched at the start of the Doha Development Agenda.

    Previous Business for Development gatherings in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America have had considerable success in helping to break down long-standing barriers - even suspicion - between governments and private sector groupings. Some developing countries now routinely include business representatives in trade negotiation teams, a long-established practice among developed countries.

    A quarter of the participants at the December forum were business groups from developed countries, highly experienced at having government incorporate their views into negotiating positions, which gave rise to a new optimism for the future of business advocacy and opportunities for new alliances.

    A further innovation was the presence of parliamentarians. According to Ramamurti Badrinath, ITC's Director of Trade Support Services, they have "the key role of legislating on trade agreements negotiated by governments [and] also have to be very aware of what the views of business are".

    The above is a summary of the Business for Development meeting, Hong Kong, China, December 2005.

    Contributors: Michel Kostecki, University of Neuchâtel; Christopher Simpson, Trade Forum contributing editor

    For information, contact Rajesh Aggarwal (aggarwal@intracen.org) or Laurent Matile (matile@intracen.org)