WTO Decision Making under Pressure: African Perspectives
46 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2021
Date Written: August 31, 2021
Efficient decision-making processes are crucial for the advancement, legitimacy and functioning of the international trading system. Many African World Trade Organization (WTO) members, individually and collectively, play an increasingly active, assertive and confident role in advocating for their trade and development interests in the WTO. But, as their voice and agency increase, decision making in the WTO has become ever more difficult, not least due to the growing number of members involved and the broader range of issues to be tackled. The recurrent deadlock and failure to conclude the Doha Round, the WTO’s longest-running trade round, reflects the growing weight, diversity and expectations of the organisation’s 164-country membership. Recent incidents, such as the blocking of the appointment of new Appellate Body members by the United States (US), the trade war between the US and (primarily) China, and India’s and South Africa’s refusal to negotiate new issues such as digital trade or investment facilitation before the Doha Round is completed, indicate a stalemate far beyond the previous power structures where agenda-setting and reaching consensus were dominated by a few of the economically strongest developed countries. Correspondingly, the WTO decision-making procedures have often been criticised for being untransparent and undemocratic. More recently, many scholars, practitioners and governments argue that existing rules and principles, most importantly the consensus principle, have proven ill-suited to respond to the fast-changing needs of the twenty-first century. The failure to significantly advance and update multilateral trade regulations has led to a series of reform proposals, including calls for pursuing new paths such as plurilateral initiatives in the form of the so-called critical mass agreements, like the Information Technology Agreement (ITA Agreement) of 1996. However, amid the Doha impasse, there have been some achievements in recent years, such as the adoption of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA)5 at the Bali Ministerial Conference in 20136 and a ban on agricultural export subsidies at the Nairobi Ministerial Conference in 2015,7 both important outcomes for African members. This gives reason to reflect on the existing WTO decision-making processes and its flexibilities for purposes of pursuing new issues. Therefore, this chapter unfolds as follows. First, in section 2, we illustrate the basic elements of decision making, including its rules and members’ actual practices. In section 3, we identify the challenges members face with the applicable rules and practices and reflect on relevant reform proposals. When doing so, in section 4, we give special attention to African members and their perspectives and discuss African members’ increasing involvement in agendasetting that fuels current challenges. We conclude the chapter in section 5.
Keywords: WTO, decision making, plurilateral negotiations, plurilateral agreements, consensus, voting, African participation, member practice, rules
JEL Classification: K33, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation