Expert views

Meeting current challenges: The job at hand for the WTO

9 December 2020
Alan WM. Wolff, World Trade Organization

Before 2020, the closest our species came to a truly shared experience was the landing of the first human being on the moon. That changed, and in a horribly negative way with COVID-19. In early April, more than half of the global population was under some sort of lockdown. People everywhere feared for the health of their loved ones and worried about their own economic prospects.

The pandemic has already claimed close to 1.5 million lives. Promising vaccine trials give strong hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but there has been a lot of loss, a lot of damage – and the storm has not yet passed.

In economic terms, COVID-19 has provoked the worst drop in economic output since the Second World War. The International Labour Organization estimates that the equivalent of 495 million full time jobs – or about 17.3% of the global total – were lost between the end of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020. Only about half of these losses are on track to be made up by the end of this year. Years of progress on hunger and poverty reduction have already been reversed, and the pandemic threatens to widen social and economic inequalities of every kind.

Women in particular have borne the brunt of this crisis, both in the labour market and at home. Education has been disrupted for billions of children. Small businesses, which have less cushion than their larger counterparts to absorb economic shocks, have also been hit especially hard. Global merchandise trade is not expected to fully recover in the near term. Many businesses in the services sector are struggling to survive.

Not all the news is negative, however.

Medical treatment has gotten far better. And as of this writing, global trade has fared better than many expected. Extraordinary fiscal and monetary support have limited the blow to aggregate demand. Several of the export controls on food and medical supplies introduced early in the pandemic have been unwound. Global value chains have shown resilience. While the pandemic exposed some of the fragilities that come with economic interdependence, it has also revealed considerable strengths: global trade in personal protective equipment more than doubled in the 12 months leading up to May 2020, illustrating how global markets and integrated supply chains are helping meet urgent demand.

Keeping international markets open is indispensable both for an effective pandemic response and, in the longer run, for a strong, sustainable and job-rich recovery.

In the future, more trade, not less, will be necessary to bring medical supplies – including vaccines – to where they are needed, and to assure food security in the face of a changing climate.

Our goal must be, as the disaster risk reduction community’s now-widely-used slogan puts it, to build back better. The theme repeatedly contained in the interventions by many of the G20 Leaders during their 21-22 November meeting was their determination not to be caught unprepared for future pandemics, which scientists predict will recur, and to meet the challenge of climate change. The trading system can do its part. To be effective, the WTO, which has for the last 25 years administered that system, needs to be updated and undergo fundamental reform.

For the pandemic, the WTO needs to do more.

Medicines and medical equipment should be duty-free. Export restrictions placed on personal protective equipment and other medical supplies should be subject to clear agreed international rules. Full transparency should be assured by the Members and the WTO Secretariat.

To meet the challenge of climate change, environmental goods and services should become duty-free, and the multilateral trading system should include new measures to deal with carbon reduction. In addition, the rules must be designed to deliver on other clear environmental priorities, to promote the circular economy, to reduce plastics pollution and to consider how best to approach fossil fuel subsidies.

The oceans should not only be freed of plastics pollution, they should be safe for fish. An ambitious agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies, now under negotiation at the WTO, is needed.

Greater socioeconomic inclusion is also an imperative.

Here too there is a role for the WTO, even though domestic policies will be critical. Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) that account for the vast majority of jobs are disproportionately harmed by fragmentation in international economic rules, since they have less resources to navigate overlapping regulations. They would also be disproportionately benefitted by common multilateral rules. The work of organizations like the International Trade Centre is a necessary complement to efforts within the WTO to equip MSMEs to seize global market opportunities.

None of this can be achieved without forward-looking engagement by WTO Members on systemic reform. The WTO must be a forum where trade agreements are negotiated and updated, and where disputes can be adjudicated in a manner deemed legitimate by all Members.

The future of multilateralism must begin now.