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
― 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

SUMMARY

SEE ALSO THIS 4-PART LONG READ
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 “How wide should the window be set? Short read on WTO transparency”

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
― 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?

Continue reading “How wide should the WTO window be set? 1 Transparency”

How wide should the WTO window be set? 2 External transparency

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how its information is handled. Second of four parts: external transparency

Madman, thou errest: I say, there is no darkness
but ignorance

          ― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 4 Scene 2


By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED APRIL 26, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 29, 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

An organisation like the World Trade Organization provides public information primarily for accountability. A better understanding of the WTO can also help generate public support, at least for the system, even if not necessarily for all of the trade rules it produces. Accountability and approval give the organisation legitimacy.

The WTO is, after all, funded by taxpayers via governments’ contributions to its budget. The WTO’s relevance depends on governments complying with the agreements they negotiated. It relies on their commitment to modernise the system through new negotiations. To achieve both of those, WTO governments need the support of public opinion.

This works at several levels and raises several questions. Does the WTO resonate well domestically with the public, farm lobbies, business interests, and others? Are officials around the world, in rich and poor countries, learning about what is at stake, as they work on domestic issues — from agriculture and state aid to banking and the environment?

Continue reading “How wide should the WTO window be set? 2 External transparency”

How wide should the WTO window be set? 3 Negotiations

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how its information is handled. Third of four parts: negotiations

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman
― Louis D Brandeis, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, 1914


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

In part 2, we said we believe external transparency should be the default in the World Trade Organization (WTO). But we also recognise that some confidentiality is needed at least for a limited time.

This is particularly the case in some stages of negotiations, but with limits. Here’s why.

Continue reading “How wide should the WTO window be set? 3 Negotiations”

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?
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2


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

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.

Continue reading “How wide should the WTO window be set? 4 Help or hindrance?”

Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines

Farah Stockman’s ideas won’t work because they don’t ‘get’ the WTO

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 27, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 28, 2020

There’s a little anecdote on the World Trade Organization’s website, right at the start of “Understanding the WTO”. As the name suggests, “Understanding” is the principal explainer of how the WTO works. The anecdote goes:


Participants in a recent radio discussion on the WTO were full of ideas. The WTO should do this, the WTO should do that, they said.
     One of them finally interjected: “Wait a minute. The WTO is a table. People sit round the table and negotiate. What do you expect the table to do?”

If we keep that in mind as we read Farah Stockman’s New York Times opinion piece (“The W.T.O. Is Having a Midlife Crisis”, December 17, 2020), then it’s easier to see why so much of the piece is wrong.

Continue reading “Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines”