How wide should the WTO window be set? 4 Help or hindrance?

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how its information is handled. Final of four parts: does transparency help or hinder?

What light through yonder window breaks? | Jay Louvion, WTO

What light through yonder window breaks?
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2

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

1. Introduction | 2. External transparency | 3. Negotiations and the constraints on transparency | 4. Does transparency help or hinder?

See also: The short version

In the Twitter discussions that kicked off this long read, one journalist argued that keeping any information confidential is anti-democratic, even if it is only for a limited time. He also said the same applies if an institution like the World Trade Organization supervises how staff talk to the media.

In parts 1 and 2 we looked at what information is available internally and externally in general. In part 3 we looked at trade negotiations, which are always a mix of public information and confidentiality.

We have a particular interest in the prospects for successful reform of the WTO and its negotiations. Would more transparency help? Would less? In this concluding part, we try to assess what that appropriate mix might be, and we return to the Twitter debate.

It’s worth repeating that this is about transparency, which provides straight information, warts and all.

We are not talking about other forms of “communications”:

  • advocacy: emphasising the positive
  • spin: more manipulative and not always honest — in the end suspect, and undermining support
  • promotion: which is supply-driven, can become repetitive and tedious, and can drown out proper information. The WTO is not Coca Cola

Continue reading or use these links to jump down the page
Does transparency help or hinder? | Is internal transparency about democracy? | Are there other downsides to transparency? | So what do we propose? | What about those exchanges on Twitter?

Does transparency help or hinder?Back to top

The evidence is at best contradictory, and expert opinion is divided — at least according to one US survey. Some of those surveyed even believe that keeping the draft agreement secret, until close to the last minute, would make ratification more likely, ensuring the deal is put into practice domestically.

Other experts looking at US domestic institutions conclude that transparency may not be the hindrance to policy making that conventional wisdom suggests.

For their part, many politicians and civil society organizations criticise a lack of transparency in current trade negotiations.

There are two sides to this coin. One side is legitimacy through public support. The other is negotiating efficiency, the ability to reach agreement.

Sometimes being too transparent may make compromise more difficult. Sometimes transparency may have no effect. But too much secrecy arouses suspicions too.

So the real question is not whether to be transparent or secretive, but what is “too much”? When and how does transparency make a difference to reaching a deal?

Perhaps the key is timing. There may be some justification to keep some parts of a negotiation confidential for a limited period. But in the end whatever is agreed should be made public, not just the detailed legal texts that few can understand, but proper explanations. It doesn’t say much about democratic processes if a deal can only be ratified when the public is kept partly in the dark.

In the US, it’s possible that the 2015 Trade Promotion Authority struggled to pass through Congress because of secrecy in Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

This allowed opponents to put the worst possible interpretation on leaked texts, whereas stakeholders and advisers who had been consulted, and had seen the full texts, could not respond because they had signed non-disclosure contracts.

Even if transparency does play a part, it is rarely the whole story. David Henig, a former British negotiator who worked on the failed US-EU talks (TTIP or T-TIP), told us that secrecy fuels campaigns by groups who oppose the talks:

“When a campaign has already been launched, the absence of available information allows for an easy accusation of ‘secret negotiations’, which sounds sinister and can be damaging. That in turn makes it harder for parties to make tough choices, which ultimately makes trade deals harder.

“But in the case of TTIP arguably the failure was that neither side could ever compromise on fundamentals like agriculture and procurement. Starting talks without a way forward on these was always going to be a problem. So while the lack of transparency played a part, I don’t think it was the major issue behind the failure.”

Or take transparency in WTO negotiations. The last significant meeting in the WTO’s beleaguered Doha Round was among a largish group of ministers in July 2008. The media were present in force. The discussion in the “Green Room” (the director-general’s private meeting room or equivalent) among all or a handful of these ministers, sometimes even two or three, was particularly confidential but journalists soon found out what was happening.

And yet there is no evidence that the meeting failed because outsiders knew too much. The meeting broke down over unbridgeable differences on the content — how much advanced developing countries like India and China were willing to open their markets, and how much the US and others were willing to cut actual support for farmers.

Irreconcilable differences: the 2008 talks broke down over substance, not publicity | Jay Louvion, WTO
Irreconcilable differences: the 2008 talks broke down over substance, not publicity | Jay Louvion, WTO
Is internal transparency about democracy?Back to top

WTO members, particularly the Geneva delegations, are much more concerned about internal transparency because real hard bargaining takes place in small group meetings.

The Geneva delegates are not always in sync with their capitals either, which may require better internal transparency.

But to frame internal transparency as a democratic process is inadequate because it focuses on Geneva, and ignores the problem of support for new rules among the public at home. That in turn needs some external transparency, whether from a neutral secretariat, or from the governments themselves.

This problem dates all the way back to the post-War 1940s when the system was set up. Negotiators convinced each other that an International Trade Organization should be created, but lost touch with currents of opinion at home. The attempt failed partly because they failed to prepare the ground domestically, particularly in the US.

To some extent the responsibility for dealing with domestic opinion lies with each government. It’s a point that governments themselves argue, and not only when they want to curb the WTO Secretariat’s role. But they rarely say anything specific other than “to improve dialogue with the public”, as WTO ministers put it in paragraph 10 of the 2001 declaration that launched the Doha Round negotiations.

The public may not be clamouring for more information on WTO negotiations, but some outside groups do demand to know more, and they do have a dialogue with the public. A negotiation like the one on fisheries subsidies needs public support, if not always from citizens in general, but at least from conservation groups and the fishing industry. For now, they can only rely on leaks or confidential briefings.

Are there other downsides to transparency?Back to top

Increased transparency might hurt if it encourages officials and politicians to posture and make uncompromising public statements.

But they often do that anyway even when the details are not public. The UK and EU ended up with a “hard” post-Brexit trade deal — with extensive non-tariff barriers and restrictions on services trade, and cumbersome arrangements for Northern Ireland — because of the posturing. “Trade Twitter” and specialist media aside, the general public and many businesses heard little during the talks about what that implied in practice.

At a more technical level, countries can be involved in several negotiations at the same time: in the WTO, and on various bilateral and regional deals.

This means that negotiators are reluctant to say what they are doing on a given topic in one set of talks in order to avoid revealing their hand to partners in another. Sometimes this applies between one subject and another, within the same negotiation.

Negotiators have to be responsible for the overall balance of the deal, so releasing bits and pieces of information can be a mistake.

Grown-up talking needed: WTO reform hinges on China-US relations and other problems | Jay Louvion, WTO
Grown-up talking needed: WTO reform hinges on China-US relations and other problems | Jay Louvion, WTO

Trade agreements are supposed to produce overall benefits, but there are usually winners and losers, particularly when market access and subsidies are involved. Some farmers may be pleased if export markets for wheat and maize open up. Others not so, if they face increased competition from imported dairy products.

So, to some extent market access negotiations can be about redistributing economic benefits (or “rents”) around the economy. Some industries or firms win. Others lose. And the gains across the economy — unspectacular increases in incomes and jobs — can seem vague and diffuse. It’s easy for opposition to harden.

One conclusion to draw from this might be that we can’t really have these types of discussions openly because it boils down to taking something from one group of people and giving it to another.

Alternatively, we might have to learn to have proper grown-up discussions, to keep the public on board, for accountability and legitimacy. And that requires good policies to allow those in the losing groups time and resources to adapt. After all, the negotiations are supposed to produce net benefits.

So what do we propose?Back to top

To sum up. Much of what the WTO and its Secretariat do is already pretty transparent, but there are areas that can be improved. We are less concerned about internal transparency in general, and most other processes that are transparent both internally and externally. Members are always on the ball on these.

  • The big exception is notifications, where governments are not telling each other enough

We do think there is room for improvement in external transparency.

  • The default for official WTO documents, and some unofficial ones, is already that they should be available publicly. This needs to be strengthened
  • The databases can be improved, including creating a single user-friendly, easily searchable database of all committee documents, questions and answers, and specific trade concerns raised in the meetings. Members and the public would both benefit
  • All agendas should be available publicly before the meetings and the archaic “airgram” documents should be replaced. Many agendas are already public by alternative means, with no effect on the meetings. Annotations (such as the title of a cited article in an agreement, not just the article number) will help the public follow what is happening, and probably many delegates too. A possible model is the eAgenda system of the Technical Barriers to Trade and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures committees, but available publicly
  • Minutes and official meeting summaries should be available publicly much more quickly than they are now, even if time is needed for delegations to verify how their interventions are reported. Delegations should try to circulate their statements as public official WTO documents within a day or two of the meetings. The document databases should include bundling all documents used in a particular meeting
  • Any documents that are currently restricted indefinitely should be available publicly after a period whose length depends on the content. For example, the maximum for particularly sensitive proposals in negotiations, could be 15–20 years, but delegations should be encouraged to release their proposals publicly much sooner (many are already circulated unrestricted immediately)
  • The two categories of unofficial documents — JOBs and room documents (RDs) — are confusing and should be rationalised
  • JOB documents should not be restricted except when necessary, even when associated with informal meetings. If restricted, they should be made public after a time.
  • Room documents’ (RDs’) primary purpose should be to float ideas that can be dropped if they do not work. If they catch on, they should be upgraded to unofficial (JOB) or official documents and eventually made public. Room documents should also become public after a time
  • In negotiations, chairs’ consolidated texts should be public documents, unless there is a real reason to delay release. There is no evidence that publication has any impact on the negotiations except to improve public understanding and possibly support
  • Dispute settlement documents, particularly panel, appeals and arbitration rulings, should be easier to understand, and with accompanying explanations that avoid legalese.
  • The WTO Secretariat should continue to be encouraged to produce speedy, accurate and user-friendly news reports and explanations on the most important meetings, so a diverse public can understand what is happening.
  • The balance of the Secretariat’s information output on its website and through social media should be considered carefully so that promoting non-core activities of the director-general and deputies does not drown out information on the core work of the WTO membership: negotiation, implementation, legal disputes and capacity building for developing countries.
Pass it on: pick up the phone but hand the call to someone who can answer | Jay Louvion, WTO
Pass it on: pick up the phone but hand the call to someone who can answer | Jay Louvion, WTO
What about those exchanges on Twitter?Back to top

This long read began with exchanges on Twitter about whether keeping any part of any negotiation confidential is by definition undemocratic, and whether it is also undemocratic for an organisation like the WTO to supervise staff who talk to the media.

Some journalists argue that the public have a democratic right to know everything that their agents in government are doing on their behalf. The practical side of this is the need for public backing.

And yet it is impractical for transparency to mean that every thought, conversation, note and negotiating tactic by any official should be instantly on the public record. There are limits.

As we have seen, experience from negotiations shows that some secrecy is just practical, and it is not undemocratic. But there are limits here too.

The need for some confidentiality is not only in trade. It happens in the family, over a contract, in talks about peace or climate change. If the ideas won’t work, they can be withdrawn. But once the ideas have stuck, they should be revealed.

It is also a mistake to confuse an organisation’s transparency with its officials’ freedom to talk to the media, particularly new staff, which is what kicked off the Twitter debate.

Trade negotiations are complicated. Almost anything in the WTO is complicated.

Information is also undemocratic and untransparent if it is incorrect. No newcomer knows enough to explain why Scotch whisky faces punitive tariffs in the US as a result of the UK and EU subsidising Airbus illegally.

Or why a proposal on “public stockholding” for “food security” in developing countries is controversial. Whoever answers has to understand that this is not about stockholding or food security as such. It’s about WTO rules on the “Amber Box” or the “aggregate measurement of support (AMS)” in agriculture. It’s about the purchase price.

Finally, one other point made in the debate was that the WTO is broken and has lost the support of a suspicious public. Therefore, the argument goes, it’s time to try something new — meaning negotiating openly, perhaps through live streaming, in order to revive public confidence.

But it’s not clear that the public is suspicious of “the global trading system”, or that the apparent brokenness of the system has anything to do with too little transparency. And what should be live streamed? The set-piece plenaries? Or delegates at lunch far from the building?

We doubt if that would mend the WTO.

So while we might agree that a young person going into public service should “pick up the phone” when a reporter calls, we would add: “Don’t answer the question but pass the call to someone who can”.

BackBack to top

Back to part 1 or the short version

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: A security guard on the balcony of the WTO Council Room during the first Global Review of Aid for Trade, November 21, 2007; India’s Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath answers journalists’ questions during the 2008 mini-ministerial, July 28, 2008; Chen Deming, China’s Minister of Commerce, comes face to face with Ron Kirk, US Trade Representative, during the Seventh Ministerial Conference in Geneva, November 30, 2009; Michael Roberts, Head of the Aid for Trade Unit, confers with DDG Valentine Sendanyoye Rugwabiza during a session of the Fourth Global Review of Aid for Trade, July 10. 2013 | WTO and Jay Louvion
, from his “Seeing by Listening” gallery

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

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