How wide should the WTO window be set? 1 Transparency

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how information is handled. Some overall thoughts. First of four parts

“Set wide the window. Let me drink the day” | Julia Volk via Pexels, CC0

Set wide the window. Let me drink the day
― Edith Wharton, Vesalius In Zante, from Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verses


By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED APRIL 26, 2021 | UPDATED APRIL 26, 2021

IN THIS 4-PART LONG READ
1. Introduction | 2. External transparency | 3. Negotiations and the constraints on transparency | 4. Does transparency help or hinder?

See also: The short version

It all began light-heartedly. Someone tweeted: “What advice do you have for young people going into public service?” A trade journalist replied: “When a reporter calls, pick up the phone …”.

As often happens, the exchanges quickly became heated. It led to a much more serious debate about the four “Ws” — who should be transparent, about what, when, and why. Plus a fifth “W” — the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The journalist argued seriously that democracy depended on openness, that governments owe their citizens full information on what they are doing, not spin, information control or obfuscation, and that all officials at all levels should always respond to requests for information.

But is it wise for inexperienced staff to talk to journalists about complex and sensitive subjects? If the organisation supervises its officials when dealing with the media is that censorship and is it anti-democratic? And more broadly, are there times when confidentiality can actually help produce good results, for example in negotiations?

We thought inexperienced officials who spoke freely to journalists would likely have a short career. So did some former trade negotiators. Worse, following the advice to “pick up the phone” could sometimes undermine good government and the prospect of successful international negotiations. It risks jeopardising public understanding if the response is unclear or wrong.

We agree that being transparent should be the default position. But we also believe that some time-limited confidentiality in trade negotiations is necessary too. If handled properly it doesn’t conflict with accountability and democracy.

This long read examines the history and current practice behind our thinking. (The short version is here.)

Our reactions may be surprising. One of us is a former journalist who then spent many years as a WTO information officer explaining the detail of ongoing negotiations. The other is a former official who spent many years as an academic explaining why and how to improve transparency at the WTO.

We have a particular interest in the prospects for successful reform of the WTO and its negotiations. Would more transparency help? Would less?

Much of that Twitter debate was related to trade and the WTO. The present clamour for “WTO reform” includes proposals on transparency. This is mainly to improve the way the multilateral trading system functions and to have enough good information to underpin further negotiations. But it is also linked to broader reform questions. And there are also calls to strengthen public support for the system, which relies on transparency.

So this is a good time to re-examine an issue that is more complex than appears at first sight. Here goes.

Continue reading or use these links to jump down the page
What does WTO transparency mean? | The WTO must not be a black box | Is internal transparency a big issue? | What do WTO members think? | Next | See also

What does WTO transparency mean?Back to top

As one of us wrote: “Without transparency, trade agreements are just words on paper.”

The WTO — its membership, not its Secretariat — has three primary tasks: to negotiate new rules, monitor how they are put into practice, and settle any legal disputes that arise. Transparency supports all three.

The way transparency is handled reduces the inherent imbalance on information — a government knowing more about its domestic policies than do its trading partners, or foreign firms. When the information is available to all, it reduces trade costs and uncertainty for firms, and it allows peer review by other governments.

These are the different types of transparency in trade and the WTO:

  • External transparency, meaning how much citizens know — public information — about the WTO, its work and its agreements, for accountability and support
  • Restricted external transparency, when governments consult business, activist groups and other stakeholders under non-disclosure conditions
  • “Functional” transparency: internal and external for the trading system to operate well, particularly through notification and review — so governments’ actions under the rules are known, can be scrutinised and are predictable for other governments and anyone involved in trade. This information is also needed to develop the system further, through negotiations
  • Internal transparency among WTO members, so all delegations and their governments know what is being discussed and what is happening, without the public necessarily knowing

That third type, functional transparency, is essential but often overlooked — the role of transparency in helping the system function well and for trade to flow as smoothly as possible. Negotiations and legal disputes are more dramatic, hit the headlines more often, and are regularly mistaken for the only important roles of the WTO.

But we are not going to discuss that here since we have both already covered it elsewhere (see below). Instead we focus on the tension between external and internal transparency, and the contribution both make to revitalizing WTO negotiations.

A large amount of WTO information, including documents and data, is already public. The diagram shows how much is available both internally and externally. And yet, some crucial information on important functions is still “restricted” — unavailable publicly. The present moves to reform the WTO should include re-examining the criteria.

WTO info public and restricted
Public v restricted: a lot of information is public, but some key parts are restricted. Click the image to see it full size
The WTO must not be a black boxBack to top

External transparency should not be an afterthought. The WTO’s information is handled in many ways. Making it public encourages understanding and support. Secrecy arouses suspicion.

10.  Recognizing the challenges posed by an expanding WTO membership, we confirm our collective responsibility to ensure internal transparency and the effective participation of all members. While emphasizing the intergovernmental character of the organization, we are committed to making the WTO’s operations more transparent, including through more effective and prompt dissemination of information, and to improve dialogue with the public. We shall therefore at the national and multilateral levels continue to promote a better public understanding of the WTO and to communicate the benefits of a liberal, rules-based multilateral trading system.

WTO Ministerial Declaration
launching the Doha Round, 2001

The need to be more open has been recognised explicitly since the WTO was set up in 1995. Ministers accepted this 20 years ago at the Doha Ministerial Conference (see box).

External transparency works directly, in information provided by the WTO Secretariat sometimes supplemented by member governments. Because so much of the information is complex, it also works indirectly through people who help to explain trade policy information, such as officials, journalists and academics.

And yet letting the outside world see in to the operations of the WTO is almost an afterthought. Members’ instinct is often to treat external transparency as a nuisance, except when it suits their individual agendas.

At the same time, we need to be clear that we are not talking about communications or “comms”. We’ll have more to say on all of this in part 2

Is internal transparency a big issue?Back to top

A huge amount of information is available to members through the vast archive of official documents and over 30 databases and other online resources, although those resources should be integrated and made easier to use.

So the internal transparency provided through WTO resources is not a big deal in general. But some of the information that governments feed into the system is. We are only going to discuss this briefly here. It matters to the members, and they are already active in trying to improve it.

Overall, members have concerns in three areas.

One is to ensure decision-making is “inclusive” — that all 164 members have a say. This has to be handled carefully since difficult decisions involve breaking deadlocks, and that can only really be negotiated in small groups. For this, information has to be conveyed in both directions, to keep the rest of the membership informed, and to ensure their voice is represented by whoever is in the small group. It remains a problem in present negotiations, and in complicated ways. We’ll examine this in part 3.

The second is about having data that are good enough for members to be able to assess the implications of each other’s trade measures in detail. It’s also about being better informed in negotiations on updating the rules. The focus is on improving transparency through notifications, for example this US-led proposal from 38 members (counting the EU as 28).

Not everyone agrees with that proposal.

Most accept that notifications have to be improved, but not necessarily in this proposed way. Members are not telling each other enough about their own policies. Sometimes this is because they themselves don’t know what all their ministries, regional authorities, states and provinces are doing. Sometimes they are afraid that revealing their policies may expose them to a legal challenge in dispute settlement.

But some see that US-led proposal as an attack on emerging economies such as China and India. A number of developing countries have countered that the ever-increasing pressure to notify is selective and too burdensome: “Developing countries often struggle to comply with onerous obligations, while in many instances, developed countries also do not comply with their notification requirements or do so selectively.” (To follow the evolution of the proposal and counter-argument, see these search results.)

The third is about language. Over the years, Spanish- and French-speaking members have insisted that major documents must be released simultaneously in all three official languages — the third and most common language is English.

The main constraint here is resources. Translating every single document accurately into two other languages requires large teams of expert translators, time, and a substantial budget. It’s the main reason why demands for Arabic to be added as a fourth WTO language were quickly dropped. Modern translation software can help but people are still needed to correct the final texts.

Often forgotten in this discussion is the fact that most WTO delegations are not native speakers of any of the three official languages. Most rely on a second or third language, usually English.

Reform: time to take another look at WTO transparency | Jay Louvion, WTO |
Reform: time to take another look at WTO transparency | Jay Louvion, WTO
What do WTO members think?Back to top

The last major discussion among members on transparency as a whole was in a 1998 General Council meeting and follow-up sessions. Since then specific issues have been discussed, particularly the information members have to notify to the WTO, and opening up some legal dispute hearings to the public. But not the broad range of transparency issues.

Those 1998 meetings covered most but not all angles. For external transparency, the discussion focused on improving the WTO’s image and defusing criticism, rather than keeping the public informed.

“The General Council could do more to promote transparency, in order to dispel the misleading impression of secrecy,” said Director-General Renato Ruggiero. (All quotes from that meeting are as paraphrased in the minutes.)

“Members [need] to demonstrate that they as Members working within the context of the WTO [have] no secrets to hide,” echoed Canada.

To which Peru countered: “The circulation of temporarily restricted documents within the WTO [does] not mean absence of transparency.” And Norway: “The notion of transparency as used in the WTO [seems] to have in it certain inherent conflicts.” And Japan: “The basic function of the WTO should not be damaged in the interests of too much transparency.”

For several, internal transparency was the bigger concern. ASEAN said: “A number of WTO Members had complained that they were being excluded from some important processes of consultations that led to substantive decisions.”

We’ll examine in more detail some of those arguments.

The 1998 meeting overlooked one important point: information is not really transparent if it is so technical or bureaucratic that few can understand it. Much of WTO official output is just that.

By 1998, the WTO Secretariat was already producing news of committee meetings on its website, together with other background information and explanations designed to be easy to understand. This has increased considerably and is an important part of WTO information work.

Before returning to that Twitter debate, we have to look more closely at external transparency in the WTO in part 2, and the complicated needs of negotiations in part 3 and part 4.


NextBack to top

Part 2: External transparency


See alsoBack to top

About transparency in general

About “functional” transparency


Robert Wolfe is Professor Emeritus of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He has written extensively on the WTO, transparency and reform, including “Romance of the three kingdoms now playing in Geneva : WTO reform as a drama between the U.S., China and the EU”, with Bernard Hoekman. Follow him @BobWolfeSPS

Peter Ungphakorn is a journalist and former information officer in the WTO Secretariat. Follow him @CoppetainPU

© The authors, except where credited differently


Updates: none so far
Picture credits:

Dome with light beam | Julia Volk, Pexels, CC0
A delegate stands to take a photo during the Eighth Ministerial Conference in Geneva, December 15, 2011 | WTO and Jay Louvion, from “Seeing by Listening” gallery


SET wide the window. Let me drink the day.
I loved light ever, light in eye and brain —
No tapers mirrored in long palace floors,
Nor dedicated depths of silent aisles,
But just the common dusty wind-blown day
That roofs earth’s millions.
O, too long I walked
In that thrice-sifted air that princes breathe,
Nor felt the heaven-wide jostling of the winds
And all the ancient outlawry of earth!


― Edith Wharton, Vesalius In Zante, from Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verses

Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU