Over the past three weeks, the World Trade Organization's headquarters in Geneva has been host to round-the-clock negotiations involving officials from more than 150 countries. It's telling that these talks have barely made the news despite the potential prize of a new trade deal worth an estimated $1trillion to the global economy. You'd have thought that the prospect of such a sizeable stimulus to the world economy might just warrant a mention in dispatches. But it seems that these days, when it comes to multilateral trade talks, scepticism always rules.
It's strange that we find ourselves in this position. Indeed, when I hear critics of the World Trade Organization, I'm increasingly reminded of the great moment in Monty Python's Life of Brian where a bunch of would-be Judean rebels ask "what have the Romans ever done for us?"
In a wonderfully absurd scene, it quickly becomes apparent that the Romans did quite a bit. So much, in fact, that the question has to be hastily reframed with a telling rider: "Apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" (The ensuing reply, as it happens, is an absolute knockout: they also brought peace).
Fast-forward to the present day and criticisms of the WTO might well be met with a similar riposte. What has the WTO ever done for us? Well, aside from setting uniform rules that govern around 95% of global commerce; more than doubling merchandise trade by opening new markets; resolving over 400 trade disputes; reducing the cost of many household essentials by around 30%; and raising the living standards of millions of people the world over.
There probably aren't many other organisations - since Roman times at least - that can point to such a startling list of achievements.
But it's also vital that we don't forget what the WTO still has to offer. Although the perception of the organisation may have taken a knock over the past decade - thanks to a round of trade talks best known for periodic crises and numerous missed deadlines - there is at last light at the end of the tunnel.
Indeed, things are moving fast. A new director-general, Roberto Azevêdo, took office at the WTO this September. Under his leadership, a bite-sized package of trade reforms focused on cutting red-tape at borders now looks ripe for agreement before the end of the year. Many people will scoff at the notion that such a deal could boost global GDP by upwards of four percent. But while customs procedures might sound trivial on paper, in the real world they are hugely important.
The textiles sector provides some striking examples of how customs bureaucracy can place local industries at a serious disadvantage in global markets. Indian companies, for instance, suffer a 30% cost disadvantage compared to Chinese firms when shipping garments to the United States, due to delays and inefficiencies in the main Indian ports of Chennai and Mumbai.
By contrast, Fiji's highly efficient transport and customs system has helped local textile manufacturers earn a reputation for being able to make timely and cost-effective deliveries to overseas customers. As a result, they're able to compete with exporters in countries with much lower labour costs.
What's more, the growing strategic importance of so-called 'trade facilitation' reforms should not be underestimated. Research shows that the internet is increasingly enabling small- and medium-sized companies to trade internationally for the first time. This is particularly apparent in many developing economies where e-commerce start-ups are booming. However, it's these smaller firms that are held back the most by unnecessary customs bureaucracy. Indeed, one of the most exciting things about this agenda is that a successful WTO deal could unleash a whole new wave of Internet-led trade - and a new era of 'micro-multinationals' to boot.
But trade facilitation is not just for business. The current negotiating text contains smart provisions to ensure that perishable goods don't get stuck at customs: a common problem which currently contributes to shockingly high rates of food wastage in some developing economies. A robust deal would also boost ongoing efforts by many governments to combat widespread border-related problems, such as smuggling and fraud.
With a little under a week to go to the WTO's biennial Ministerial Conference, it's vital that businesses and consumer groups make their voice heard in support of a global agreement on trade facilitation. Trade ministers have at their fingertips the chance to inject a massive stimulus into the global economy - and, in doing so, put multilateralism firmly back on the international trade agenda. They, and us, should not let that opportunity pass.
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