How wide should the window be set? Short read on WTO transparency

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how information is handled. This is a summary of a 4-part long read on the WTO and transparency

“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 MAY 27, 2021


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

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 …”.

This led to a much more serious debate about transparency, particularly in trade and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Would more transparency help? Would less?

Transparency in one sense is the purpose of the WTO — reliable information about government rules and practices reduces uncertainty about the conditions of trade. It also provides accountability for taxpayers’ money.

And yet in some circumstances too much information can impede governments’ ability to achieve their objectives in the WTO.

We try to clarify the distinction and to suggest that doing better ought to be part of the WTO reform agenda.

Continue reading or use these links to jump down the page
What does WTO transparency mean? | How does external transparency work? | How much information is available on WTO negotiations? | Does transparency help or hinder? | What do we propose? | What about those exchanges on Twitter?

(The longer version of this is here)

What does WTO transparency mean?Back to top

The WTO — in other words the membership, not the 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.

These are the relevant 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, to see how WTO agreements are being implemented, so the system functions well
  • 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

Our focus here is only on the tension between external and internal transparency, and the contribution both can make to revitalizing the WTO and its negotiations.

To be clear, this is not about communications or “comms”. Pure transparency provides straight information, warts and all. Advocacy emphasises the positive. Spin is more manipulative and not always honest — in the end it becomes suspect and undermines support. Promoting the WTO and its Director-General is sometimes useful, but too often becomes a distraction.

What does WTO transparency mean? | The WTO must not be a black box |
Is internal transparency a big issue? | What do WTO members think? | See also

How does external transparency work?Back to top

All WTO agreements and all notifications — information governments have to supply on their laws and regulations under the agreements — have to be public. Providing information on how commitments and obligations are implemented, and monitoring governments’ trade policies generally, make the trading system clearer and more predictable

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

A large amount of WTO information, including documents and data, is already public, as the diagram shows. And yet members tend to treat external transparency as an afterthought, if not a nuisance. Increasing public information should be part of the present drive for WTO reform.

The WTO’s information output is now predominantly through its website, from news stories to more technical material on the committees’ work and legal disputes.

The main external audience is diverse: citizens, lawyers, academics, think-tankers, lobbyists, activists, journalists, politicians, business and industry associations, companies’ trade specialists. The media and non-governmental organisations are less interested than they used to be.

But openness is applied inconsistently. This is true of meeting agendas, minutes, documents in negotiations including proposals and drafts, and the categories of WTO documents, particularly the two informal types.

And simply making texts public does not guarantee transparency. Most dispute settlement documents are available but few people can understand them because they are extremely legalistic.

Public information is essential for public support. A WTO that looks secretive arouses suspicion. Leaking, which is almost routine in an organisation with so many members, worsens the impression. It is biased because those who leak have an agenda, and they leak to people who will help push the agenda. By and large, information from the Secretariat is neutral.

How does external transparency work? | How is this haphazard? | Who is responsible: members or Secretariat? | What about restricted external transparency? | What are they going to talk about next time? | What did they talk about last time? | What about disputes? | Are we talking about “comms”?

How much information is available on WTO negotiations?Back to top

A fact:

Countries do not negotiate in meetings of the full membership, even behind closed doors — whether the meetings are formal (on the record) or informal (off).

And they always worry about how much information the Secretariat should make available, even on background in non-attributable briefings.

In those meetings of the full membership they mainly reiterate their positions. There is no give-and-take, no real negotiation. If the meetings were open to the public, the grandstanding would be even worse, as has been formalised in plenary sessions of ministerial conferences.

Without alternatives inside the WTO, negotiators would go outside. Sometimes direct contact between capitals is the only way of achieving a breakthrough on a particularly difficult issue.

So in the WTO, a mixture of small-group and full-membership meetings has evolved, called “concentric circles”. Real negotiation with floated ideas and movement towards compromise only takes place when delegates are comfortable and reasonably private. A lot of effort is then needed to ensure information gets back to all members.

This has implications for both internal transparency — the major concern for delegations — and external public information. It requires careful handling and confidence-building as the chairs gradually draft and redraft texts on a possible final agreement.

Countries don’t like being left out of meetings, even if they are told what happened and even though any decisions can only be taken if they are part of a consensus. So now, in 2021, the configurations have become more cumbersome. This affects the work of the ministerial conferences, and negotiations meetings in Geneva.

How are WTO negotiations organised? | How has the system evolved? | How are they handled? | Is this still done in 2021? | What has happened to Green Room meetings? | Have they really never negotiated in big meetings? | What about talks outside the WTO?

Communication is key: the concentric circles of meetings in WTO negotiations
Communication is key: the concentric circles of meetings in WTO negotiations. Click the image to see it full size
Does transparency help or hinder?Back to top

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

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 and how that agreement developed should be made public. It doesn’t say much about democratic processes if a deal can only be ratified when the public is kept partly in the dark.

There is little real evidence that negotiating in the public glare is the cause of failure, whether in bilateral or regional negotiations, or for the meeting of a group of ministers in the WTO in July 2008. Sometimes keeping the talks confidential arouses suspicion, mobilises opposition and makes agreement more difficult.

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 we propose?

Much of what the WTO and its Secretariat do is already pretty transparent, but there are areas that can be improved. We have a list of proposals for making the publication of WTO information more rational and consistent, with external transparency as the default.

We recognise the need to keep some information confidential but the reasons should be genuine, not out of habit or shyness.

Our proposals include rethinking formal and informal WTO documents, being open about meeting agendas and speedier in publishing minutes, encouraging members to make their negotiating proposals public, releasing chairs’ draft texts in all negotiations (not just some), and explaining dispute rulings for a broader public. They can be found here. (See also this on a meeting agenda)

What about those exchanges on Twitter?Back to top

The need for some confidentiality is relevant to all negotiations, from a union contract through trade to 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 who do not yet understand the complexity of what is being negotiated or the reasoning behind a legal dispute ruling.

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

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?

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: May 27, 2021— adding the link to a leaked meeting agenda
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

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