Tag Archives: World Trade Organization

If you take away multilateralism, who will hear us?

Alicia Nicholls

The title of this week’s article is borrowed from the impromptu but impassioned appeal made by Prime Minister of Barbados, the Hon. Mia Amor Mottley, QC, MP, in her maiden address on September 28th during the General Debate of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). With only one notable exception, support for multilateralism was a common thread linking the speeches given by world leaders during the General Debate.

Perhaps the most compelling case for multilateralism was that made by Foreign Minister of Singapore, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan. While warning that multilateralism was at a crossroads and was facing a crisis of confidence, Foreign Minister Balakrishnan made an articulate case for the indispensability of multilateralism to the global community, especially to small states.

Indeed, multilateralism affords small states a microphone that they would otherwise lack on the international stage. Despite the successes of the rules-based multilateral system, there are widening cracks in the system. These require immediate remedial action to enhance the system’s structural integrity to withstand the threat of creeping unilateralism, and to more effectively serve the needs of the global community in a changing geopolitical and economic world.

What is multilateralism?

Multilateralism, in the most rudimentary sense, refers to cooperation among three or more nation states to achieve a common goal. In contrast to the current isolationist US government stance, previous US governments were central to the establishment of the present-day multilateral system, which bears their footprint.

The modern day multilateral system was fashioned in the wake of the Second World War (1939-1945) with the aim of promoting global peace and stability. It was based on the liberal theory of international relations which posited, inter alia, that states which cooperate would not resort to war. It was in that immediate post-war era that the United Nations, the progeny of the League of Nations (1920-1946), was formed in 1945. The Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), the watchdogs of the global economic order, were established at a conference held in Brettons Woods, New Hampshire, US in 1944.

Multilateralism recognizes that no one Government alone can handle the growing plethora of challenges confronting the global community, and that by pooling resources, wisdom and ideas through shared institutions, optimum solutions could be found. In the years that followed, a spaghetti bowl of multilateral organisations has flourished in areas as diverse as health, telecommunications, the environment, migration, international transportation, labour, among others.

With respect to trade governance, an attempt was made by a US-led group of countries to establish an International Trade Organisation (ITO) in the mid 1940s but failed after the US Congress repeatedly declined to approve the ITO Charter. As such, an informal organization known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) governed world trade from 1945 until January 1995 when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) came into being.

Why Multilateralism Matters to Small States

The majority of today’s developing countries were still colonies when many of these multilateral institutions were birthed. However, upon attaining independence, acceding to these institutions was viewed as a requisite rite of passage. This is particularly true for the world’s small states which have overwhelmingly been supporters of multilateralism.

But why is that? Small states, with their diminutive economies and populations, weak political leverage and inherent vulnerabilities, would be the “bullied kids” in an anarchic global system where “might is right”. The rules-based multilateral system provides a buffer of stability and predictability for small states. Its norms-based system, undergirded by international law, helps to constrain and contain great power aggression. In a general sense, multilateral institutions provide some semblance of accountability for those States which contravene global norms. I say in a general sense as history has proven that this has not always been the case with big countries. In the area of trade, the WTO’s dispute settlement system gives small states the opportunity, at least in theory, to hold hegemons to account.

Multilateral engagement gives small states, which would otherwise be Liliputians in the international system, a voice. Whereas by itself a small states’ voice is a little more than a squeak, by building coalitions small states have managed to achieve a roar on some issues. One of the most notable cases was the success of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in the UNFCCC negotiations leading up to the signature of the Paris Climate Agreement during the COP21 in 2015. Though not perfect, that agreement is an important milestone in the fight against anthropogenic global warming.

Small states have also been able to benefit from capacity building and technical assistance from multilateral institutions. An example is the research done by multilateral financial institutions on the issue of de-risking which has led to the loss of correspondent banking relations, with implications for these states’ financial sectors and commercial relations. In the wake of the financial crisis, several Caribbean countries, and most recently Barbados, have had to enter IMF structural adjustment programmes.

Some small states have also played a key role in the establishment of multilateral institutions. Trinidad & Tobago was instrumental in pushing for the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and small states helped to push for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Moreover, small states have had some success in attaining high positions in international organisations.

Why is Multilateralism Under Threat?

Why is a system which has given the world relative peace and prosperity for some seventy years now facing what Singapore Foreign Minister Balakrishnan called a “crisis of confidence”? Questions about the efficacy and legitimacy of multilateral institutions have long been raised, but rising populism and anti-globalisation sentiment, in the wake of uneven recovery from the financial crisis has led to rising nationalism, xenophobia and unilateralism. Indeed, the recently published UNCTAD Trade and Development Report 2018 noted that trade tensions were a “symptom of a greater problem”, that is, failure to address rising global inequality and imbalances caused by “hyper-globalisation”.

But many of the problems are not the fault of multilateralism but due to inappropriate policy responses by Governments and by disruptive technologies which have replaced labour with machines. As such, as noted by Foreign Minister Balakrishnan in his UNGA speech, it is up to governments to address this through retooling workers and reformulating their education systems to equip the next generation with the tools to exploit these technologies.

Small states in their successive UNGA addresses have often expressed frustration at the slow pace of action on some fronts of concern to them, including financing for climate change. Antigua & Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, voiced disappointment with his country’s inability to receive compensation from the US after the WTO dispute settlement body ruled in Antigua & Barbuda’s favour in the US Gambling dispute. Moreover, Caribbean leaders have frequently bemoaned the lack of support for discontinuing the use of GDP per capita as a basis against which to measure development status. This criterion has excluded middle and high income Caribbean countries from most concessional loans and official development assistance.

Making Multilateralism Work Better

The question is not whether multilateralism works, but how can it work better. There are legitimate concerns about whether today’s multilateral institutions, many of which were forged during different economic and geopolitical times, remain “fit for purpose” for today’s global realities and challenges. Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan recognised this when he asserted in 2002 that “the United Nations exists not as a static memorial to the aspirations of an earlier age but as a work in progress – imperfect as all human endeavours must be capable of adaptation and improvement.”

On the trade front, for example, there have been increased calls for reform of the WTO. Several members, including the US, Canada and the EU, have made proposals for reform. As it stands, the WTO’s negotiation function remains in a state of paralysis, while the US blocking of the appointment of judges to its Appellate Body over the US government’s dissatisfaction with the dispute settlement system risks creating a crisis in that body’s ability to be an arbiter of trade disputes between WTO members. The renewed appetite for WTO reform provides a window of opportunity for small states to redouble their advocacy efforts for their own reform proposals, while making sure they are not excluded from having a seat at the table.

There is the need to address democratic and transparency deficits within multilateral institutions. The configuration and operation of the UN Security Council, for example, stills reflects a geopolitical reality that no longer exists. Decisions made by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where developing states do not have a seat at the table, have had devastating consequences for the offshore financial services sectors of Caribbean states.

Institutional reform would require, where feasible, strengthening the secretariats of these organisations to better serve the needs of member states, especially the most vulnerable. In addition to fostering a greater space for civil society to be heard in multilateral organizations, there should also be greater emphasis on building the capacity of small states to effectively participate in meetings and the day-to-day operations of these organisations.

The challenges which face the world call for more multilateralism, not less. Multilateralism is important for achieving Agenda 2030, including the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Multilateral institutions also have a pertinent role to play in developing rules to address emerging global issues. Singapore Foreign Minister Balakrishnan, for example, called for the UN to develop norms and rules for cybersecurity.

In the past week alone, several events have further reiterated why multilateralism is needed now more than ever. One of which is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC which showed that the world was already experiencing the effects of warming of 1.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The devastation caused by Hurricane Michael to the Florida Panhandle in the US this week reiterates the urgency of the need for redoubled climate action. Rising global trade tensions, protectionism and unilateralism have made trade top of mind for global economic leaders. In their communique released following the Annual Meetings of the Boards of the IMF and World Bank, it was specifically noted that the IMF would facilitate multilateral solutions for global challenges.

Carrying on the multilateralism baton

Prime Minister Mottley concluded her UNGA speech by asking “Will we carry and hand over to future generations, the baton left us by those who dreamed of a world of united nations or will we drop it?” For small states, it is important that we do not allow this baton to be dropped.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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Trump ‘trumps’ the WTO

Javier D. Spencer, Guest Contributor 

Javier

THE WTO

The 1995 organization has done considerably well to date as an arbiter of international trade. The organization was created as a response to the economic situation in the 1930’s that resulted in global tensions. Its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was ostensibly limited in scope and so, the consensual demand was for an inclusive and comprehensive institution to govern and promote international trade.

Achieving inclusive and comprehensive trade was daunting; nevertheless, the organization has attained the aforementioned buzzwords and continues along this trajectory. For instance, the WTO started with only 123 signatories under the Marrakesh Agreement in 1994 and today has over 160 members, with pending ascensions. Additionally, it is remarkable to note that the WTO agreements are comprehensive. They cover trade in goods, services, agriculture, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, intellectual property, rules of origin, subsidies, dispute settlement, and many more.

The WTO rests on its founding principles of non-discrimination, reciprocity, transparency, safety values, and binding and enforceable commitments such as the tariffs commitments in order to liberalize and promulgate free trade as a global public good. With these at its core, it is fair to say that the organization has lived up to its core function and objective.

Having regard to the organization’s core functions and objectives, governing global trade is no easy feat, especially taking into consideration competing political and economic interests among WTO member . The organization is a rules-based organization and these rules are agreed upon by consensus of member states. In this regard, the organization’s Dispute Settlement system remains a feather in the cap and its prized arm. The Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) has provided stability to the global economy by ensuring that agreed rules are enforced. Since its existence, the DSB has successfully deliberated on many cases that have maintained the integrity of the WTO rules.

Despite its successes, the future of the WTO remains vulnerable. At present, it is on the receiving end of dire threats from one of its founding members – the United States (US). Interestingly, the US led the global effort to establish the machinery to manage global trade. However, the present President of the United States (POTUS) lashes the organization as the worse deal for the US. POTUS’ actions to date are alarming – from delaying the appointment of members to the WTO Appellate body to dusting off Section 301 of the Trade Act to a brewing trade war with China and other countries to the burial of the NAFTA to public statements of leaving the WTO and much more. We should be worried about the future of the WTO.

TRUMP

The WTO is lauded by many countries as a fair and just organization that seeks to level the playing field and as much as possible promulgate all-inclusivity. However, not all world leaders share these sentiments. One example is the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States and has been in office since January 2017. He triumphed over his opponent with his patented and infamous campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again”, a slogan that is purported to usher in better economic times for the United States of America. It was envisioned to focus on military operations and to focus on implementing mechanisms to fillip the job market and ailing industries in the US. The implication of this, of course, is that Trump’s actions would focus on US’ external trade policy. However, at what cost is Trump willing to “Make America Great Again?” Does he mean to make America great again by ruffling the feathers of a peaceful, collaborative, rules-based multilateral trading system?

It is without a doubt that Trump has very little faith in multilateral organizations. To date, the POTUS has adopted many controversial positions in global affairs, with harsh jabs towards the WTO. He has aired that the WTO does not serve the interest of the US and as such, the organization is biased and unfair to the country. He has further iterated that the WTO and the EU are collaborating against the US and as a result, transactions by these organizations are very ‘bad’ for the United States. These sentiments all lead to a threat to withdraw the US from the organization – much like the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights body. The threats and dire warning aimed at the multilateral organization from the POTUS show isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, and I even dare say reverse globalization.

The stance on global trade, in particular, and actions that are taken show that POTUS’  external trade policy remains a mystery. One thing is for certain, he strives to deliver on his campaign promise of remedying the trade [im] balances that the US has with other countries, in an effort to “Make America Great Again”. The achievement of this infamous slogan has led to a trade war with China, sanctions against Turkey, a failed trilateral negotiation of NAFTA and other trade turbulences – with surely more to follow.

In early July, in a claim to fix the unfairness in trade, the US imposed 25% tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods. This then extended to steel and aluminium imports from Canada and the European Union. (The move to extend the imposed tariffs to the other countries could be looked at from the lens of ensuring that Chinese firms do not engage in deflective trade strategies by establishing firms in these territories and export under the guise of these territories.) As the US imposed these tariffs on Chinese goods, China returned the favour by imposing tariffs on US goods and as such, a tit-for-tat trade war ensued. For Trump, he deemed that the imposition of tariffs was necessary and served as “national security” interest of the United States. This exemption clause is enshrined in the 1994 GATT Article XXI of the WTO agreement and is certainly one loophole of which the POTUS will take full advantage.

The example of the US-China brewing trade war definitely puts the global rules-based system in peril. It brings into question the authority or jurisdiction of the WTO to advise the US of the legitimacy of “essential” or national security claims. However, on the other hand, supporting Trump will legitimize a major loophole in the global trade rules. At this crossroads, the WTO faces an uphill battle with a world leader’s determination to dismantle decades of the global trade order.

The POTUS’ actions to weaken the organization goes beyond Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, which was the US domestic legislation used to spur the trade war. In fact, there is a draft a bill that the POTUS has advanced that would have dire consequences for the WTO and the global trading system. The Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act (FART Act) is de facto a mechanism for the POTUS to completely disregard the WTO rules. In other words, the Act confers rights on the POTUS to adjust tariffs rates with countries outside of the WTO jurisdiction, without much red tape and authorization of Congress.

 WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

With all that is happening now in the global trade environment, the brewing question is what would happen if the WTO were dismantled by the US. As a global hegemon, the US’ exit of the WTO will certainly cause a domino effect. Other countries will follow and move to impose tariffs to their absolute advantage – making the rules-based organization and its decades of work useless.

POTUS certainly has no faith in the multilateral trading system and is reshaping the US’ external trade policy by striving for bilateral trade agreements with countries. There is nothing inherently wrong with negotiating bilateral agreements with third-party states. In fact, there are provisions made within the WTO rules-based system that enables countries to create regional trade agreements. However, it would seem that POTUS’ aim is to completely ignore the rules and create his own rules. Rules that would only advance the economic interest of the US, which may not maintain the integrity and ethos of free and fair global trade. This form of trade policy is one where we will see that the US will use economic pressure to its whims and fancy.

Many cases have proved the WTO’s worth in regulating global trade so that there is an equal opportunity available to all member states. Developing countries and countries of the Global South should make it a priority to save the WTO. In particular, the Caribbean Small Vulnerable Economies (SVEs) should focus on the future of the WTO against the backdrop of POTUS’ withdrawal threat. The US remains the Caribbean’s largest trading partner for both imports and exports.  So, what would a US withdrawal mean for these Member States? An appropriate question considering US-Antigua Gambling Case. Antigua is yet to be compensated and the possibility of the US complying with the WTO’s ruling is unpromising. With the US’ pronounced economic influence on the region, its withdrawal would further subject the Caribbean SVE’s to the US “beggar-thy-neighbour” trade policy.

It would be unfortunate for all if the actions of one President collapse a just and fair trading system.

Javier Spencer, B.Sc., M.Sc., is an International Business & Trade Professional with a B.Sc. in International Business and a M.Sc. in International Trade Policy. His professional interests include Regional Integration, International Business, Global Diplomacy and International Trade & Development. He may be contacted at javier.spencer at gmail.com.

Barbados ratifies WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement

Alicia Nicholls

On January 31, 2018, Barbados became the 130th World Trade Organisation (WTO) member to ratify the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.

According to the press release from the Barbados Government Information Service (GIS), “the instrument of ratification was formally handed over by Ambassador to the United Nations and Other International Organisations, Bentley Gibbs, to Secretary General of  the WTO, Robert Azevedo, in Geneva, Switzerland”.

The Trade Facilitation Agreement came out of the WTO’s Bali Ministerial in 2013 and entered into force in February 22, 2017 after two-thirds of the WTO’s membership ratified the Agreement. It aims to expedite the movement, release and clearance of goods across borders by reducing red tape, improving transparency and facilitating cooperation among customs authorities.

The benefits of these provisions, once implemented, include reducing trade costs for businesses, increasing participation in global value chains and improving trade flows. Ratification of the Agreement is, therefore, an important signal to investors of a country’s commitment to improving its business environment for trade.

In keeping with the principle of Special and Differential Treatment, there are implementation flexibilities in Section II for developing and least developed countries, recognising they may need more time to implement the provisions of the Agreement. Like other developing and least developed countries, Barbados has access to the Trade Facilitation Agreement Facility which provides assistance for notification, capacity-building support and grants.

The following other Member States of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have already ratified the Trade Facilitation Agreement: Trinidad & Tobago, Belize, Guyana, Grenada  and St. Lucia (2015), Jamaica and St. Kitts & Nevis  (2016), St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Dominican Republic and Antigua & Barbuda (2017).

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

WTO Trade Forecast 2017: Cautiously Optimistic about trade growth recovery

Alicia Nicholls

After decelerating considerably in 2016, world merchandise trade growth is expected to recover to 2.4% in 2017. This is according to the cautiously optimistic trade forecast released today by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

According to the WTO, although global merchandise trade volumes have historically on average grown 1.5 times faster than global GDP, this ratio has slowed to 1:1 since the crisis of 2008. Last year’s merchandise trade growth of 1.3% was the slowest pace of trade growth since the world economic crisis of 2008 and was linked primarily to a weak global economy.

In his press conference remarks, Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, explained that early indicators, such as the record increases in global container shipping throughput, the high levels of global export orders, and the expected recovery in world economic output, point to a recovery in global trade in 2017.

However, the WTO Chief also cautioned that this forecast assumes that governments pursue the right policy mix and that forecasts of an expected recovery in global GDP are accurate. The report noted that trade growth could be negatively affected by governments’ trade, monetary and fiscal policies.

Indeed, the Director-General’s remarks to this point perfectly sum this up as follows:

Overall, I think that while there are some reasons for cautious optimism, trade growth remains fragile and there are considerable risks to the downside. Much of the uncertainty around the outlook is of course political — and not only geopolitical. Part of this is driven by people’s concerns about the impact that trade can have.

Given the high levels of uncertainty which have increased the forecast risk factor, WTO economists have also given a growth range of between 1.8 and 3.6% for 2017.

Observing that trade does cause some dislocation, the WTO Director General cautioned governments against protectionism and highlighted that innovation, automation and new technologies, and not trade, were responsible for eighty percent of the loss of manufacturing jobs.

The WTO’s forecasts for 2018 are much more optimistic, with a growth forecast of between 2.1 and 4.0%

For further information, please see the WTO Director-General’s press conference remarks here and the WTO’s press release here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and Caribbean Small Island Developing States: Challenges and Opportunities

Alicia Nicholls

Getting raw sugar from a sugar factory in Guyana or Suriname to supermarkets and kitchens half-way across the world involves many different customs processes and paperwork. The World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement seeks to cut the red tape and reduce the transaction costs and delays in the movement, release and clearance of goods across borders through the harmonisation, simplification and acceleration of customs procedures.

Trade facilitation, along with investment, competition policy and government procurement, was one of the four “Singapore Issues” which developing countries were opposed to including in the multilateral negotiation agenda at the 5th WTO Ministerial in Cancun in 2003. However, negotiations on trade facilitation were eventually launched in 2004 (pursuant to Annex D of the July Package) with the “aim to clarify and improve” relevant aspects of trade facilitation articles under the GATT 1994″ in order to speed up the movement, release and clearance of goods, including goods in transit.

After nearly ten years of negotiations, the TFA was concluded at the 9th WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali, Indonesia in 2013. It is the only multilateral trade agreement to be concluded so far out of the deadlocked Doha Development Round and the first since the WTO was established twenty years ago.  A separate Protocol of Amendment was adopted by WTO members on November 27, 2014 to insert the TFA into Annex 1A of the WTO Agreement.

The TFA will enter into force once two-thirds of the WTO’s 161 states (as at April 2015) ratifies the agreement. So far of the only 52 countries which have already ratified the agreement, Trinidad & Tobago and Belize are the only countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to have done so, while Mauritius is the only other SIDS worldwide to have done so. A report published by UNCTAD in September 2014 on the status of implementation revealed that though a priority, trade facilitation is a major challenge for developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) and that some of the major barriers to implementation are lack of resources and of legal frameworks.

Caribbean Economies are trade dependent

Trade facilitation is important for Caribbean economies which have a high dependence on trade. Limited natural resources and lack of scale make most Caribbean SIDS (with the exception of Trinidad & Tobago) highly dependent on imported food, fuel and medicines, while their export profiles are characterised by a narrow range of exports and export markets. They have limited participation in global value chains and face declining terms of trade.

Smaller Caribbean SIDS have largely diversified from economic dependence on mono-crop agriculture to services trade, mostly tourism and/or financial services. However, the major commodities exporters in the region (Trinidad & Tobago and the mainland countries of Guyana, Suriname and Belize) rely on exports ranging from oil and natural gas in Trinidad & Tobago and Belize, to aluminium, rice and raw sugar in Guyana and Suriname.

Importance of Trade Facilitation

Despite market access opportunities created by trade agreements, a major complaint for Caribbean SIDS exporters, especially small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), have been the cumbersome hurdles they face when seeking to export to foreign markets. These hurdles include not just complex customs procedures but also stringent sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards (SPS) and technical barriers to trade (TBTs), these latter two are covered in other WTO agreements (i.e. the SPS and TBT Agreements).

Customs procedures vary by country. By standardising and simplifying customs procedures, reforms pursuant to the TFA can enhance access and predictability for Caribbean SIDS exporters in foreign markets and promote export diversification.

As the industrial action by customs officials in Barbados earlier this year showed, customs delays can negatively impact businesses and consumers. These delays can stem from the time taken to process applications for obtaining import or export licenses to the length of time for barrels and containers to clear ports.The quicker goods clear customs the quicker they can reach businesses and consumers for use as inputs or as final goods. Efficient customs release and clearance is particularly important for time-sensitive perishable products such as fruit and meats. Loss of perishable goods equals lost revenue to businesses.

Transparent customs procedures and rules can also limit the opportunity for corruption by officials at checkpoints. Moreover, as import duties are still important revenue sources for Caribbean SIDS, modernisation of customs collection procedures can facilitate increased tariff revenue collection.

The Agreement

The TFA is divided into 3 sections: general provisions, special and differential treatment provisions for developing country members and least-developed country members (LDCs) and institutional arrangements and final provisions.

It provides binding obligations in relation to procedures for pre-arrival processing, electronic payment, procedures allowing the release of goods prior to the final determination of customs duties, taxes, fees and charge, a risk management system for customs control, post-clearance audits, establishment and publication of average release times, procedures to allow expedited release of at least goods entered through air cargo facilities and procedures for releasing perishable goods within the shortest possible time.

Provisions requiring publication and availability of information (such as applied rates and import/export restrictions) on the internet and for allowing traders and “other interested parties” the opportunity for comment and if necessary consultations before introducing or amending laws of general application to trade in goods, aim to promote transparency. While this latter provision may sound like an invasion of policy space, developing countries should take advantage of this provision to have their say on proposed policies by developed countries which might have an impact on their exporters.

The Agreement also includes some ‘best endeavour” provisions, such as encouraging members to use relevant international standards in their formalities and procedures and to establish a single window for traders. The Agreement further provides for the establishment of a permanent WTO committee on trade facilitation and member states are required to designate a national committee to facilitate domestic coordination and implementation of the provisions of the Agreement.

Special and Differential Treatment

The TFA presents numerous benefits for Caribbean SIDS. However, Caribbean governments’ capacity to implement these trade facilitation reforms varies considerably as evidenced by the difference in their Category A notifications.

The special and differential treatment provisions in Section II of the Agreement take this into account by linking countries’ commitments to their capacity to implement them. Moreover, LDCs will only be required to undertake commitments to the extent consistent with their individual development, financial and trade needs or their administrative and institutional capabilities.

These flexibilities are based on the modalities that had been agreed in Annex D of the July 2004 Framework Agreement and paragraph 33 of and Annex E of the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration. Developing countries and LDCs are to receive assistance and support for capacity building to implement the provisions of the Agreement in accordance with their nature and scope.

Developing and LDC countries are required to categorise each provision of the Agreement  based on their individual implementation capacity, with Category A being those measures they can implement by the time the Agreement comes into force (or within one year after  for LDCs), Category B being those which they will implement after a transitional period following the Agreement’s entry into force and Category C meaning those which require capacity building support for implementation after a transitional period after the Agreement’s entry into force. Most Caribbean SIDS, including Barbados, have now submitted their Category A notifications.

Trade Facilitation Facility

A key developmental element of the TFA, the Trade Facilitation Facility (TFF) was established in July 2014 to provide assistance to developing countries and LDCs to ensure “no WTO member is left behind”. The TFF is to provide assistance in helping them assess their capacity to implement the TFA, by maintaining an information sharing platform to assist with the identification of possible donors , providing guidance on the implementation of the TFA through the development or collection of case studies and training materials,  undertaking donor and recipient match-making activities and providing project preparation and implementation grants related to the implementation of TFA provisions in cases where efforts to attract funding from other sources have failed.

According to the World Trade Report 2015, once it enters into force, the TFA is expected to reduce total trade costs by up to 15 per cent in developing countries.

Status of Implementation

At the recently concluded COTED meeting in Georgetown, Guyana, CARICOM members reported on their status of TFA implementation. However, this status information has not been made public. Despite this, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a ‘compare your country on trade facilitation performance’ portal which allows for comparing countries on trade facilitation indicators.

Looking at Barbados’ performance for instance, Barbados “matches or exceeds the average performance of high income countries in the areas of fees and charges and simplification and harmonisation of documents”, with performance improving in appeal procedures and automation. However, some ground was lost in information availability and internal border agency cooperation.

Implementation Challenges

Trade facilitation reforms can be beneficial to Caribbean SIDS.  This does not mean however that there will not be significant implementation challenges, particularly the infrastructure costs related to technology and equipment, and administrative, human resource and training costs. There will also be costs associated with raising private sector awareness. These costs are not just one-time costs but are recurring.  In light of competing resource demands and their limited access to concessionary loans these costs will not be easy for cash-trapped Caribbean SIDS which already have high debt to GDP ratios.

The flexibilities in the Agreement allow states  to implement the provisions in accordance with their capabilities and there are aid for trade initiatives such as the European Development Fund of which Caribbean SIDS have been taking advantage in varying degrees.  Other challenges for implementation include limited human resource capacity and the need to reform existing laws and regulations to give effect to obligations.

Surveys of developing countries and LDCs conducted by the WTO found that trade facilitation remains a high priority for developing countries. For Caribbean SIDS there certainly has been some interesting developments on this front. The governments of several Caribbean states have openly stated their countries’ firm commitment to trade facilitation and their recognition of its potential for economic growth.

Trinidad & Tobago was recently approved for a $25 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to help strengthen the country’s Single Electronic Window for Trade and Business Facilitation Project (TTBizLink). With the aim of becoming a logistics hub, Jamaica has recently established a Trade Facilitation Task Force. Technical assistance and aid for trade facilitation are also included in the EC-CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement, which includes a protocol on mutual administrative assistance in customs matters.Moreover, in Barbados’ latest Trade Policy Review 2014 WTO members noted the considerable progress the country made with respect to the adoption of trade-facilitation measures. Recently, the island  also amended its Customs Act to allow for post-clearance audits.

Taking full advantage of the technical assistance, aid and capacity building assistance under the TFF will be key for Caribbean SIDS in their implementation efforts.

The Case of Mauritius 

As the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius was the first SIDS to ratify the Agreement, it provides useful lessons for Caribbean SIDS. Seizing the opportunity to boost its competitiveness, Mauritius has received assistance from the International Trade Centre and UNCTAD, including for the establishment of the Mauritius National Trade Facilitation Committee. One can read about the Mauritius experience here.

Conclusions

Despite the high costs and challenges of implementation, trade facilitation reforms pursuant to the WTO TFA have the potential to bring many benefits to Caribbean SIDS. By streamlining the flow of cross-border trade, the ratification and speedy implementation of the TFA by Caribbean SIDS and their trade partners will allow Caribbean exporters to capitalise on the market access openings available in foreign export markets, thereby boosting Caribbean SIDS’ export competitiveness and GDP growth, with spillovers for income and job creation. However, regional exports will still need to meet SPS and technical standards which for many exporters still remain significant barriers to trade.

Ratification and full implementation  of the TFA by all CARICOM states could also improve Caribbean regional integration by easing transaction costs of exporting across CARICOM states. Implementing these reforms also send a strong signal to the business community of these countries’ commitment to improving their business environment.

Full realisation of the benefits of the TFA will not be automatic and the degree will largely be contingent on the pace and depth of implementation of the Agreement by  Caribbean governments and their trading partners and on stakeholder buy-in. Stakeholder holder consultation and strong coordination between public and private actors will be crucial for the formulation of implementation plans and the monitoring and assessment of the impact of the reforms. In this regard, lessons can be learnt from the Mauritius experience. Trinidad & Tobago and Belize have already made the step by ratifying  the Agreement. It is hoped that other Caribbean SIDS will soon follow suit.

The full text of the Trade Facilitation Agreement is available here:

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.