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    What people don't know about trade and why they need to know


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2006

    © Photos.com

    Trade topics rarely make for dinner table conversation or work-break chats by the water cooler.

    The public may know that international trade affects their daily lives. But people have a sense of unease. They don't know exactly how global commerce can enrich everyone or what to do when it doesn't.

    Only when people understand the power of trade, for themselves and for others, will public support swing towards a pro-trade agenda.

    In everyday conversations, people express their worries about unemployment and inequality, about the brain drain and immigration, about civil conflict or environmental damage. What many people don't know is that international trade can be part of the solution.

    Trade can create jobs and industries for poor or marginalized communities. The freedom to trade across borders can expand opportunities for entrepreneurs with the innovation and drive to succeed. In countries where opportunities for development are scarce, trade matters even more in the fight against poverty. Trade gives poor communities the capacity to buy the services they want or need.

    In India, for example, there was a fear that liberalization in telecommunications would bring a reduction in services, particularly in poor rural areas with few big-spending customers (international and long-distance national callers and business clients). To the surprise of many, liberalization actually improved telecoms access in rural areas and lowered rates drastically by introducing competition. The improved services helped with education and community development. Infrastructure development by new companies resulted in new industries for business process outsourcing, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

    In recent years, in development circles, international trade has been accepted as a way to reduce poverty. Yet we have not reached a critical mass of well-informed citizens who understand the link. A minority understands the ins and outs of trade policies. Fewer still understand how trade development works within countries, starting with the ability to produce goods and services that will interest consumers around the world.

    Without wider public support and understanding of international trade and development issues, it will be hard for initiatives like the Doha Development Agenda, Aid for Trade or the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to succeed. What can trade development organizations do to build up a support base for trade with the public?

    People rarely link trade with poverty reduction

    In industrialized countries, understanding of poverty and development issues remains shallow. The latest transatlantic survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States shows support for free trade, but fear of job losses and reluctance to remove trade barriers (see Has Public Support for Free Trade Reached its Peak?). Americans and Europeans, when asked the most important reasons for giving aid, generally put poverty alleviation, health issues and encouraging democracy before "helping poor countries to trade". Nor are people very aware of official development assistance and development cooperation policies, according to a 2003 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Similarly, four years after the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals, as many as 88% of Europeans had never heard of them, according to a survey carried out by the European Commission.

    Why is awareness low?

    People who could speak out about the benefits of trade have neither done it well nor gone beyond limited circles. Trade can be a complex issue to explain. Even where related fields should be connected, they may not be so in practice. Leaders in trade, development and finance in least developed countries do not always communicate properly with each other, for example, in order to give trade the place it deserves in development strategies (see Getting the Framework Right). This is reflected in education systems, press and other communications mediums that reach the general public.

    Among those who might make a difference:

    • Business leaders concentrate on making businesses viable. They are not used to advocating collectively. But things are changing. Before the WTO Hong Kong Ministerial Conference, the Financial Times published a letter from executives studying at IMD, a top international business school, who expressed concern at "the lack of business and professional leadership on what we see as the most pressing issues of our time".
    • Trade negotiators may not want to give away their bargaining positions. This makes it difficult for journalists to report (see Reporting on Trade: A Kenyan View).
    • Journalists find that many trade development stories are not "breaking news" in the way that disease, conflicts or even controversial trade talks may be. It takes conscious effort to find the human-interest stories in the slow, often arduous processes to develop trade and reduce poverty over days, months and years.
    Trade issues are often too complex to convey without background knowledge or training. Media personnel in many developing countries lack expertise, hampering economic and political reporting, according to a 2002 World Bank report on the role of mass media in economic development. They may find it more difficult to reach their public too. People in industrialized countries, for example, are over 25 times likelier to receive a daily newspaper than residents of African countries. Work by the Panos Institute with developing country journalists (see Strengthening Trade Coverage in the Media) suggests similar findings.

    • Trade organizations may not be doing all they can to build awareness about how trade contributes to economic and social development. Avoiding jargon and looking for the human angles to showcase successes is not enough. While aligning development plans to include trade is essential, such initiatives must be matched by efforts to build public understanding of the power of trade to transform society.

    Building Awareness

    What can trade development organizations do to overcome the lack of public concern - and even hostility - resulting from the lack of awareness on the benefits of international trade? With whom can they communicate? Here's a checklist.

    • Journalists. Without journalists on board, reaching a broader public is impossible. A few organizations tackle this challenge by creating training programmes for journalists on trade policy issues. Such programmes might be matched or expanded to incorporate export development, focusing on case studies and human-interest stories of how trade can reduce poverty.
    • Teachers and students. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have started to develop education programmes on trade. Oxfam is a leader in this area, targeting teachers, children and adolescents through books, games, posters and DVDs on topics such as fair trade, poverty and globalization. The World Bank has a development education programme for secondary school students and teachers about socio-economic and environmental aspects of sustainable development. Consider researching such programmes and exploring partnerships to develop and test curricula on trade development issues of concern to your country.
    • Business communities. Businesses have a dual role in raising awareness, as both learners and educators. Many firms don't know enough about trade issues beyond their immediate business concerns. On the other hand, informed business coalitions play a part in influencing parliamentarians and ministers in trade and export development strategies. There is still great scope to expand this role, especially in developing and transition economies. Several ITC programmes work with businesses to help them promote their concerns to achieve a more favourable trade environment.
    © Co-op America, People & Planet, Fairtrade Foundation
    Fair trade guides
    These groups use brochures and booklets to raise community awareness..

    web site

    Stories, videos, photos and games from this World Bank site sensitize youth on trade and other issues.

    • NGOs. Many NGOs originally associated with humanitarian relief or environmental protection are developing advocacy programmes related to trade policy, as Trade Forum noted in a recent issue. (See Trade for All, Bringing in NGOs, issue 2/2006.) Opening dialogue with these groups, and seeking common ground, may be a good place to start.

    • Trade policy-makers. Policy-makers also have a dual role. The decision-making power of parliamentarians gives them importance, as does their voice, in helping the public understand the power of trade for development. They are also lobbied from all angles. Donor agencies have their own views on trade issues, often expressed as conditions for recipients, and they could put part of their aid into awareness-raising efforts directed at the public. At ITC, programmes are in place to hook up trade policy-makers with business advocates to educate the decision-makers about business needs and interests in export development.
    Trade unions and faith-based groups are also among the distinct communities that can form part of a partnership to advocate for trade.

    Reaching a broader public

    A strategic way to make an impact is to combine the actions of groups under a common campaign umbrella. A recent Swedish government campaign to raise awareness of MDGs is a case in point. The national campaign involved government, international institutions, universities, NGOs and private companies in Sweden. The approach proved successful. Four years after the adoption of the eight MDGs, 27% of Swedes were aware of them, compared to 12% in other European Union countries.  

    © InterAction, Care

    NGO advocacy guides

    Techniques used by NGOs, mostly in development advocacy, could be adapted by trade development professionals.Authorities planning a campaign to increase export awareness may find their best guides are outside the trade field. Manuals and guidelines on campaigning and advocacy are available from InterAction, CARE, Oxfam and other NGOs. Fair trade organizations also have manuals about raising support for fair trade products.

    A first step is to identify the partners in organizing and rolling out a campaign. This should even precede identifying target audiences. To increase your impact, you need to liaise with non-traditional partners and aim for more diverse audiences. Bringing these groups into advocacy campaigns raises their awareness about trade and can turn them into valuable advocacy partners.

    The case for business advocacy for trade
    "…[T]he CEO of every US company with international activities, however small, should invest the time to explain to company employees - whether they number five, 5000 or 50 000 - how globalization expands the company's opportunities, how open markets affect the company's revenues, and how much of the employee's paycheck comes from the company's international activities.

    "Business leaders are in a position to help change how working Americans think about trade simply by providing them with the facts. For example, very few Americans know that lowering trade barriers even by a third in the Doha Round would boost the average American's annual income by $2000 (in 2003 dollars)… Few Americans are aware of how the Doha Round's goal of opening trade, if achieved, would help to alleviate grinding poverty… Few are aware that one million jobs would be created in developing countries if just 15 million additional tonnes of sugar could be imported into highly protected markets… with no adverse effect on either the US domestic market or the global economy…

    "By explaining such facts, business leaders could help their employees understand that trade is the best tool [to] generate economic growth at home and abroad, alleviate poverty and encourage global stability."

    "The Stakes of Doha," Carla A. Hills, former US Trade Representative, in Foreign Affairs, "Freer Trade?" Special edition, December 2005.

    Research: Marija Stefanovic, ITC. Writers: N. Domeisen, P. de Sousa, P. Hulm, M. Stefanovic.