Davos Dialogues and an Informal WTO Ministerial Meeting

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By Elizabeth Morgan

Rebuilding trust means that equitable access to vaccines and building back better has to be universal and not only self-serving goals, hence the importance of multilateralism

Last week, in my article on January 27, I looked at the issues which are preoccupying the Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in this time of COVID-19. High on the agenda is access to medical supplies including vaccines.

In the same week, it has been customary, since 1971, for global political and economic leaders to flock to the ski resort of Davos in Switzerland to attend the prestigious, non-governmental World Economic Forum (WEF) which offers an opportunity to collectively reflect of the state of the world’s economy. It has also become customary for the Swiss Confederation (Switzerland) to host a WTO Informal Ministerial Meeting on the margins of this Forum.

The Davos Agenda

Prime Minister Allen Chastanet of Saint Lucia

With the COVID pandemic still front and centre, this year the WEF has two parts. In Davos Week, January 25-29, the Agenda was presented in a series of virtual discussions, Davos Dialogues, launching “the Great Reset Initiative” under this year’s theme, “A Crucial Year to Rebuild Trust”. The focus of participating world leaders was on strengthening multilateral cooperation to address the pressing global problems. I noted that David Jessop in his article in the Sunday Gleaner, January 31, highlighted the speech by the President of China, Xi Jinping. Titled “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light up Humanity’s Way Forward”, it is, indeed, one to read for China’s position. It should be noted also that Prime Minister Allen Chastenet of St. Lucia participated in this event on January 27 on the topic “Catalyzing a new future: From Small Islands to Great Ocean States”.

A special WEF, hopefully, will be held in-person in Singapore, May 13-16. This will be only the second time that the WEF would be held outside of Davos. It seems that the media did not give wide coverage to these Davos Dialogues and the accompanying Informal WTO Meeting. In the Caribbean, we should be aware of these meetings and their outcomes.

Informal WTO Meeting

Senator, the Hon. Kamina Johnson Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Jamaica

H.E. Mr. Guy Parmelin, President and Economic Affairs Minister of Switzerland, hosted the WTO Informal Meeting virtually on January 29 inviting 29 Members. The reach was much wider as group coordinators were invited. These were Chad representing the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Mauritius – the African Group, and Jamaica, Senator, the Hon. Kamina Johnson Smith, representing the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS).

The USA was represented by the Chargé d’Affaires in its Permanent Mission to the WTO, David Bisbee, as the US Trade Representative nominee, Katherine Tai, is still to be confirmed by the Senate.

Ministers were requested to focus on issues related to the postponed 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12).

In his summary of the meeting, the Swiss President pointed out that Ministers and High Officials attending expressed the following views:

  1. The need for swift appointment of a new WTO Director General;
  2. The need to confirm dates for MC12;
  3. Their determination to maintain a credible multilateral trading system and to restore a climate of trust;
  4. Their concern about the enormity of the social and economic impact of COVID-19, highlighting the relevance of trade and the role of the WTO; noting the importance of access to equitable and affordable medical goods, including vaccines, and considering the means to addressing these goals including facilitating trade, intellectual property rights and transparency;
  5. Their regret at the failure to complete the fisheries subsidies negotiations, the need to now conclude a comprehensive and effective agreement as soon as possible, and their commitment to this effort;
  6. The need to restore a fully functioning WTO dispute settlement mechanism;
  7. For some, a desire to see further progress on agriculture trade policy reform including measures to further address food security;
  8. A desire to see tangible outcomes from MC12 including on such matters as services, e-commerce, investment facilitation as well as trade and women’s empowerment;
  9. Recognition of the need for reform at the WTO considering such issues as development status;
  10.  Some interest in work on new issues such as trade and environment sustainability; and
  11.  Their commitment to engage in the MC12 preparations.

Vaccine availability

With minds on COVID-19 and vaccine availability, both were raised during the Davos Dialogues and the Informal WTO meeting. These issues are highlighting an element of selfishness which continues to prevail in global trade and this will not engender trust.

I am listening to the vaccine discussions taking place in the USA, Canada, UK and EU which is about the pace at which their populations will be vaccinated, the amount of vaccine ordered, the amount to hold in reserve, and even threats to impose trade restrictions/sanctions if vaccine orders are not filled on time. I see athletes and politicians being vaccinated. Yet, in the Caribbean, we were not scheduled to receive vaccines for our frontline workers and most vulnerable until April. The WHO/PAHO announced on Monday that they will start delivering vaccines in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas commencing this month, which was a surprising improvement.

We have to keep reminding our trade and development partners that they cannot build back better if only a few countries have access to medical supplies, including vaccines. In this interconnected world, also demonstrated by COVID-19, all of us need to be healthy and building back better for a post COVID restoration of the global economy, and indeed, we have to be working to strengthen the multilateral system for collective solutions which include implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Submitted by Elizabeth Morgan, Specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics

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