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    New Realities and Assistance for Traders and Trade Policy-makers


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2002

    Today, new challenges face both strategy-makers and business as we put new demands on trade to serve broader objectives than just to increase commerce. However, new networks are springing up that aim to help both sides in the dialogue - government and civil society - and to bring business effectively into the broader discussion.

    Traditionally, trade policy has been an arena with relatively straightforward objectives revolving around opening and protecting markets. Trade facilitation has focused on making the exchanges between traders and markets more efficient. But increasingly, trade is seen as serving multiple objectives. As a result, it requires different strategies, capacities and supportive policies.

    The movement toward "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) is the most familiar reflection of business efforts to retool to meet broader objectives. The concept of "transgovernmentalism" has gained currency among policy-makers whose resources have diminished as their jobs have become more complex. Both of these concepts incorporate elements of networking and outreach to achieve strategic policy and business objectives. Strong advocates against these concepts also exist. They argue that business and government must do what they do best and let others step in to fill the gaps. In this environment, extended networks have the potential to help business, policy-makers and civil society address the challenges faced by all groups.

    Business network shortcomings

    Remarkably, business has changed its approach to trade policy influence very little in response to the changing environment. By default, it has largely ceded its position in the debate about public welfare and trade policy. This represents a great shortcoming in most businesses' trade networks and a great opportunity for those who can mobilize activity in this area.

    However, the challenges are great. They require organizations to think outside traditional boundaries and to develop new capacities for analysis and communication. Such engagement is not purely political. As technical understanding of trade and economic transformation has deepened among non-governmental organizations (NGOs), business and governments, all participants will be forced to support their preferred policies with better reasoning and to communicate this to broader publics.

    Facilitating the network

    In this milieu, several organizations have been created or retooled to address the new challenges of making the extended trade network work and to be more responsive to the broader range of objectives demanded of trade policy. One of these organizations is the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD). Shortly after the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established, ICTSD was created in 1996 by a group of NGOs representing diverse interests on sustainable development and trade.

    ICTSD's work focuses on the trade policy-making process, with a non-partisan emphasis on enabling and facilitating participation by those who up to now have been only marginally involved in such processes. This includes NGOs from both the North and the South, and a broad range of groups from the South including governments, business and academia. It also includes intergovernmental organizations that do not necessarily have mandates on trade, but whose work intersects with trade in some way. ICTSD's network has grown from a few hundred organizations in 1996 to more than 9,000 in virtually all of the countries of the world. The network is comprised 40% of policy-makers and 60% of civil society organizations.

    Publications as facilitators

    When it started, ICTSD's network was highly fragmented and diverse. Today, as a result of its publications, it is perhaps even more diverse but less fragmented. Early on, the organization recognized that effective facilitation of exchanges between such dramatically different groups had to begin with enabling participants to understand each other. This was true not only between policy-makers and NGOs, but also among NGOs themselves. In particular, non-trade policy-makers needed to understand the language of trade policy, while policy-makers needed to learn the language of sustainable development. ICTSD established two publications designed for this purpose: a monthly review, Bridges; and a weekly trade news digest targeted at non-trade professionals.

    One of the most successful aspects of Bridges has been its willingness to publish pieces that are not part of the mainstream of trade policy analysis and that may shed new light on contentious aspects of the trade and sustainable development interface. Bridges now has two sister publications that are produced in Ecuador in Spanish for Latin American audiences and in Senegal in French for African audiences. These contain 50% to 75% original material from the regions, as well as adaptations of articles from Bridges. This model has been very successful in building awareness and active trade policy issue networks at regional and national levels. It has also formed the basis for many regional policy issue collaborative efforts.

    Keeping up with rapid changes

    ICTSD's weekly trade news digest helps its audiences to keep up with the rapidly changing trade policy-making arena and to look ahead and participate in forthcoming discussions. This lowers the barrier to participating in trade discussions, especially for organizations and missions that only have a few people following trade questions. It is worth noting that both publications are currently distributed without charge and cost less on an annual basis than many mid-size conferences. They provide a basis for ICTSD and many other organizations to facilitate interaction between parts of the growing network.

    ICTSD's dialogues programme has used the regional collaboration model in its publications; it addresses specific issues of concern to the regions. This has been essential in enabling effective participation in trade policy discussions at all levels. Participation is not simply a matter of sending more people to Geneva. In essence, it is about formulating more coherent policy nationally and regionally. ICTSD's dialogues help support this by creating partnerships with regional NGOs and governments to create workshops and seminars that explore relevant issues from national and regional perspectives. Over the past three years, ICTSD regional trade and environment seminars have been held in Latin America, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Typically, they involve participants from some 20 countries in each region.

    Wide-ranging interactive workshops

    The ICTSD meetings take advantage of regional WTO technical cooperation activities on trade and environment issues. They have been structured as interactive workshops that provide both space and substance for non-official dialogue in a way that encourages participants to exchange experiences. Some recent meetings in this series have discussed:

    • Protecting traditional knowledge, farmers' rights and access to genetic resources through the implementation or review of the WTO agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.
    • Environmental impacts and mitigation costs of cloth and leather exports.
    • Environmental requirements and Asia's exports.
    • Trade, poverty alleviation and allocation of resources.
    • Sectoral examinations of sustainable development concerns in trade in tourism services, mining, sugar, flowers and forestry.

    Increasing network-building capacity

    ICTSD's approach has been quite fruitful for other organizations. As they have developed more sophisticated technical resources and strategies, several NGOs have strengthened their network-building activities. This includes organizations as diverse as the Seatini Project in Zimbabwe, the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Canada and Oxfam in the United Kingdom. Several organizations are establishing offices near national, regional and multilateral policy-making centres. Increasingly, these organizations are working with other civil society organizations and policy-makers to develop policies that are coherent and that support more effective participation in policy-making.

    Some interesting initiatives work directly with business. For example, FUNDES (the foundation for sustainable development in Latin America) is a network serving Latin American businesses in about ten countries. It was originally conceived to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to become more sustainable through financial assistance and guarantees. More recently, it has shifted to consultancy work that helps client organizations understand and implement practices that are good for business and that support sustainable development.

    ICTSD and these other organizations are in the process of building an extended network for trade. However, it is clear that these efforts complement, but do not replace the traditional trade network. The conclusion is that a vast amount of work is still needed in trade facilitation if developing countries and their businesses are to become better integrated into the world trading system.

    Andrew Crosby (crosby@ictsd.ch) is Programmes Director at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva. This article draws on experiences with the ICTSD, but does not represent the views of the organization.