Trade in 140 Characters or Less: How the WTO Can Stay Relevant in the Digital Age

By YDC WTO 2017 Delegation

For many members of the millennial generation, the World Trade Organization (WTO) can be considered a problematic organization. Indeed, the trade agreements they promote can increase economic inequalities, lower environmental and labour standards, and protect the interests of multinational corporations. So why did we attend the WTO’s Public Forum, as representatives of Young Diplomats of Canada? At the very least, it was a great chance to bring a youthful perspective to discussions around gender and trade, protectionism, and whether trade can facilitate sustainable economic growth.

The theme of the 2017 WTO Public Forum was “Trade: Behind the Headlines.” While there was significant discussion during the conference on the trade agreements that are currently occupying the headlines - for instance, NAFTA and CETA - there was also a recognition of the contributions made by governments, the private sector, and international organizations to increase trade and improve its effectiveness. The WTO, on the other hand, faced significant criticisms during the conference for its inability to communicate the benefits of trade to a wider audience.

As an international multilateral organization, the WTO’s mandate is to provide a platform for participants to discuss better ways of increasing trade. Its existence enables Member States to better negotiate and implement free trade policies. However, as we discovered during a panel at the Forum on the Legitimacy of Global Trade, the WTO is rapidly losing relevance in a world where trade policies can be altered or targeted with only a few tweets. What does this mean? The WTO has to rethink stakeholder engagement; renew political and digital engagement, and, in particular, target young leaders who are innovating new ways of doing business. 

We have several thoughts on how they could do so:

First, it is essential that the WTO takes a new approach when it comes to using technology for promotion. When the topic of ‘technology’ was examined at the Forum, the discussion was often centred around the ways in which e-commerce could be regulated to benefit small and medium enterprises (SMEs), women, etc. Meanwhile, many senior WTO employees are unable to use social media to promote their own work, much less educating the world on developing issues like intellectual property rights, AI, and automation. Although we may not yet be at the point where classified trade negotiations can be livestreamed, the WTO could tangibly engage with the very start-ups it hopes will benefit from increased trade, in order to create modern education, awareness, marketing and communications programmes that are easily accessible through a range of tech mediums.

Second, the WTO needs to ensure that its public outreach efforts - in particular, the Forum itself - are more than just photo opportunities, and that they provide more effective engagement of stakeholders. Instead of allowing moderators to passively allow panelists to promote their own businesses or programs, the WTO should ensure that Forum sessions actively engage the academics, practitioners, and innovators who are in attendance in a dialogue on relevant topics. This can be done by changing the format of sessions to allow for more active engagement of audience members and increased networking between attendees, while limiting the time speakers are able to present unchallenged. Effectively, public outreach efforts like the Forum should provide WTO staff with the opportunity to actively consult stakeholders on trade policies that are being developed.

Finally, the WTO should ensure that its communications and initiatives reach a range of stakeholders, and not just those who have always benefited from trade. When it comes to trade, Canada has recently been emphasizing the idea of ‘progressive trade’ – that is to say, ensuring women, Indigenous peoples, youth, and other marginalized communities are able to access the benefits of trade as well. The WTO has the capacity to better coordinate initiatives that could support some of these groups, and to ensure that they are represented even within the WTO organizations and on panels that discuss all aspects of trade. As participants at the Forum, it was empowering – but also rare – to be able to discuss some of these issues with Canadian Ambassador to the WTO Stephen de Boer. For trade to be more effective overall, it is necessary that these issues be discussed, and that a diversity of people is involved in doing so.

Of course, many of these recommendations are ambitious for an organization the size of the WTO to adequately implement. These days, it is hard to tell which international organizations will even be around in the coming years. Still, it is our hope that the next forum will have genuine discussions on how the WTO can do better, and not just tweetable soundbites.