Pledging meet gets SFr30 million for WTO technical assistance

Some 30 million Swiss francs has recently been pledged for a WTO technical assistance fund for developing countries, but, asks the following article, how effective are such trade-related capacity-building programmes in aiding the poor countries and, indeed, do their aims reflect more the agendas of Northern donors rather than the needs of recipients?

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: A pledging conference on 11 March at the World Trade Organization for technical assistance activities netted pledges totalling more than 30 million Swiss francs for a Global Trust Fund, with SFr25.2 million for the year 2002 and SFr5.6 million for 2003.

The funds are to be used by the WTO for what is described as the “Doha Development Agenda Global Trust Fund” and spent on various activities described as technical assistance activities: national and regional seminars and symposia.

Of the amounts pledged, SFr6.032 million are funds transferred by donors (Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the US) from the bilateral trust funds they had already created at the WTO.

In line with the practice in international institutions, of the SFr30.8 million total of extra-budgetary resources to be spent on such activities, the WTO secretariat will collect 13% or SFr4 million as “overheads.”

There is thus a vested interest of international secretariats in running technical assistance plans through extra-budgetary funding, even if in their public statements heads of organizations complain about it and express preference for regular budget allocations. There is also a reluctance on the part of government delegations to take a high-profile approach and criticize some of these activities: either their capital-based officials or their diplomats too are invited to or want to attend such seminars and meetings. The situation is no different at the WTO.

Nevertheless, trade diplomats and their capital-based ministries could insist on an important corrective, namely, that their domestic public interest civil society groups (and not merely businesses) be invited to attend and participate. Whatever the unevenness of these groups, they are currently more aware of the issues and other viewpoints than those promoted and presented by the international secretariats and their invitees. This way, the local officials, and business groups, will benefit from the debates.

While part of the funds allotted for overheads will perhaps be spent on legitimate staff resources and facilities for the activities, as a general practice, at least some of the amounts that are available to any international organization under these trust funds and voluntary funding also become a kind of ‘slush fund’ that is used to meet the travel expenses of the heads of the organizations and senior officials who attend these seminars and workshops.

In 2001, for example, trade diplomats said, the many travels of WTO Director-General Mike Moore and some senior officials (who accompanied him) for various regional visits and meetings where he promoted the launching of a new trade negotiating round with new issues, were met out of the technical assistance budgets.

This issue appears to have figured in the discussions last year in the WTO budget committee, though the members who raised it did not appear to have received detailed information on these matters.

In fairness to the WTO and Mr. Moore, this is not a picture that is unique to the world trade body. However, the non-transparency of the WTO and its budget and spending processes (both pre- and post-), even to members, leave aside to the public, is much more pronounced than at other international organizations, where budget documents, audit reports, etc. are routinely available in the public domain.

Nature of technical assistance

In the WTO’s Doha Ministerial Declaration (which in fact has nowhere mentioned the term “Development Agenda” although the WTO secretariat has called it so), the Ministers of Member countries agreed to “well-targeted, sustainably financed technical assistance” and acknowledged that “technical cooperation and capacity-building are core elements of the development dimension.”

Following the Doha Ministerial Conference, Moore, as well as some of the least developed and other countries, have been speaking of the work programme and negotiations launched there as being conditional on the provision of technical assistance and capacity-building for the least developed countries (LDCs) and others.

These are terms which are also used at other international organizations, and yet there is no clear understanding of what they mean and how those providing the technical assistance understand them.

At a WTO General Council meeting on 13 February, in comments on the technical assistance plans and activities, Tunisia had said (though making it out as referring to experience in other organizations) that technical training and assistance programmes in international organizations for capacity-building often result in seminars being held, consultants being engaged and the people involved travelling around the world, but with ultimately very little increase in capacity in the countries concerned.

A report on technical assistance activities presented by the WTO’s secretariat to its Committee on Trade and Development, which also became the basis for the pledging meeting, has listed some 517 events, briefly listing the subjects, the Doha mandate if any, the activity, the cooperating organizations, approximate dates, the operational WTO division and the venue. The subjects or titles range from “accession” all through the alphabetical listing to “TRIPS”. However, there is no indication of the amounts to be spent on each.

Of the 517 events planned, 87 are in relation to the four “Singapore issues” (i.e., investment, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation), 62 on the services negotiations and 15 on agriculture. Something titled “mainstreaming” has 37 items listed: technical missions, seminars and symposia.

Among the 87 planned on the Singapore issues, the cooperating agency chosen on investment and competition policy issues is the secretariat of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), whose investment division, even since before the Singapore Ministerial Conference in 1996, has been busy trying to promote multilateral investment and competition rules and agreements.

UNCTAD’s own technical assistance plans, unveiled at a meeting earlier this year of its Committee on Goods and Services, and on the basis of which UNCTAD is trying to raise donor funding, suggest that its own priorities too, because of dependence on donors, may be skewed in favour of the four Singapore issues.

One of UNCTAD’s internal documents, which seems to have found its way into the hands of some delegations (engaged in UNCTAD’s mid-term review process), suggests that one of the major sources of funding being thought about or approached is the UK development cooperation minister Clare Short. Documents of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) that NGOs have obtained show that a major thrust of the DFID, which is headed by Short, is to promote WTO agreements on investment, competition policy, transparency and trade facilitation, and that the DFID expects the organizations receiving such funds to bring about, through technical assistance, the support of developing countries for an expanded trade agenda.

The Netherlands, and the European Commission, are another potential funding source, and their own trade documents leave little doubt on what they want to achieve and expect the donee organizations to do. Some of the EU Ministers went to UNCTAD’s tenth conference (UNCTAD X) in Bangkok in 2000 and made a concerted attempt to promote the Singapore issues. There is no reason to think that their views have since changed or that they have eased their pressures.

According to reports among G77 delegations and NGOs at New York, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which also provides some funding for such activities, is under pressure from the US to make sure that the funded outfits promote the US agendas.

With regard to the WTO, one would have expected a technical assistance plan under the “Doha Development Agenda” to attempt to mainstream development into trade and other activities, rather than the other way around. However, under the heading “mainstreaming” is listed, for example, a meeting at the headquarters of the Economic Commission for Africa titled “mainstreaming trade priorities into development plans and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Programmes.”

Civil society concerns

Some 18 civil society organizations, in a statement on 11 March, expressed their concerns about trade policy capacity-building and the pledging meet, as well as the content of the proposed programmes, faulting them for being more secretariat- and donor-devised than oriented to the recipients and their identified needs. The plans, the NGOs said, essentially prioritized the Singapore issues in terms of the inter-agency assistance to be provided.

The civil society groups said that technical assistance and capacity-building had emerged as important issues for least developed and developing countries in the Doha Ministerial Declaration. At Doha, Ministers had agreed to “well-targeted, sustainably financed technical assistance” and acknowledged “that technical cooperation and capacity-building are core elements of the development dimension.”

Whilst the objective of building capacity of all WTO Members to define and act on trade policies that are in their best national interest is widely shared, the NGOs said, important questions remained about how capacity-building would be delivered and by whom.

At the General Council in February, government representatives in Geneva had pointed to significant problems with the WTO technical assistance plan and asked that it be revised with input from Member governments, the NGOs noted, adding that they too wanted to take the opportunity presented by the pledging meet to register concerns about the revised technical assistance plan.

Some of the major civil society concerns, the statement said, include:

1)   The technical assistance plan has thus far been largely devised by the WTO secretariat rather than by the intended recipients of the assistance: 40 LDCs and over 80 developing countries. “We urge further consideration to be given to the proposals made by LDCs for technical assistance in the Zanzibar Declaration last July.”

2)   The nature of the technical assistance plan is in itself problematic. A large part of the plan involves the Integrated Framework for Trade-Related Technical Assistance to LDCs (IF), a programme which has already been tried and failed. The core agencies of the IF are the International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Trade Centre (ITC), UNCTAD, UNDP, World Bank and the WTO.  The allocation of responsibilities in the revamped IF seems again unbalanced, and the major role being allocated to the World Bank in particular is a cause for concern.  Recipient governments should have the flexibility to choose the agency and the form of assistance that they feel to be most appropriate.

3)   Inter-agency assistance seems to prioritize the highly contested Singapore issues. This prioritization of the new negotiation issues over the needs of the LDCs and developing countries to improve capacity on ongoing issues is problematic. The Doha mandate does not give priority to these issues and specifically mandates that technical assistance be given to “better evaluate the implications” of issues such as investment and competition.

4)   WTO secretariat seminars and workshops have been widely acknowledged to be too general and ineffective. This points to the need for more independent evaluation of the secretariat’s past efforts on technical assistance when approving the new technical assistance plan. The strategic partnerships with regional banks for implementation of the Doha mandates are particularly unclear. The secretariat is already engaged in drafting MOUs with regional banks. However, very little information on these MOUs has been made public or shared with the trade delegations themselves.

“We urge donors to work more closely with all WTO member countries and with civil society stakeholders to define a programme for trade capacity building that will strengthen the overall capacity of these countries to identify and pursue their own trade objectives in the context of a broader development plan. To ensure that the post-Doha capacity building is indeed given in that vein, it will be important to put in place a mechanism to independently assess its effectiveness. The current plan to allow another branch  of the WTO Secretariat to perform an audit on capacity building is insufficient,” the NGOs said.  (SUNS5078)

From TWE No 276 (1-15 March 2002)