The WTO issued a press release on Jnauary 21, 2021 entitled “Group of members issue joint pledge on humanitarian food purchases”. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/agri_21jan21_e.htm. As the press release notes,
“A group of nearly 80 WTO members issued a joint statement on 21 January pledging not to impose export restrictions on foodstuffs purchased by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) for humanitarian aid.
“’We recognize the critical humanitarian support provided by the World Food Programme, made more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises,’ the group said in their statement, available here. ‘We therefore commit to not impose export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme.’
“Discussions regarding export restrictions on food purchases by the WFP have been taking place in the WTO’s Committee on Agriculture in Special Session as well as the General Council.
“The WFP is the United Nations agency charged with delivering food assistance in emergencies and combatting hunger.”
The submission by the 79 WTO Members is embedded below (WT/L/1109).1109-1
While the pledge by the 79 WTO Members is a significant event, the fact that the full WTO membership was not willing at the December 2020 General Council meeting to commit to such action is problematic and a reflection of the inability of WTO Members to come together on a broad array of issues. This has reduced the relevance of the WTO as a negotiating forum and prevented the updating of multilateral rules. It has led to a proliferation of free trade agreements and actions outside of the WTO. Considering the role that the World Food Programme plays and the list of beneficiaries, it is also quite extraordinary that there wasn’t an agreed General Council Decision adopted in December.
The UN World Food Programme
The UN’s World Food Programme (“WFP”) has for fifty years supplied food to those in need around the world. Consider the overview from the WFP’s webpage, https://www.wfp.org/overview (emphasis in original).
“The World Food Programme (WFP) is the leading humanitarian organization saving lives and changing lives, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience.
“As the international community has committed to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition by 2030, one in nine people worldwide still do not have enough to eat. Food and food-related assistance lie at the heart of the struggle to break the cycle of hunger and poverty.
“For its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020.
“In 2019, WFP assisted 97 million people – the largest number since 2012 – in 88 countries.
“On any given day, WFP has 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and nearly 100 planes on the move, delivering food and other assistance to those in most need. Every year, we distribute more than 15 billion rations at an estimated average cost per ration of US$ 0.61. These numbers lie at the roots of WFP’s unparalleled reputation as an emergency responder, one that gets the job done quickly at scale in the most difficult environments.
“WFP’s efforts focus on emergency assistance, relief and rehabilitation, development aid and special operations. Two-thirds of our work is in conflict-affected countries where people are three times more likely to be undernourished than those living in countries without conflict.
“In emergencies, WFP is often first on the scene, providing food assistance to the victims of war, civil conflict, drought, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, crop failures and natural disasters. When the emergency subsides, WFP helps communities rebuild shattered lives and livelihoods. We also work to strengthen the resilience of people and communities affected by protracted crises by applying a development lens in our humanitarian response.
“WFP development projects focus on nutrition, especially for mothers and children, addressing malnutrition from the earliest stages through programmes targeting the first 1,000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday, and later through school meals.
“WFP is the largest humanitarian organisation implementing school feeding programmes worldwide and has been doing so for over 50 years. In 2019, WFP provided school meals to more than 17.3 million children in 50 countries, often in the hardest-to-reach areas.
“In 2019, WFP provided 4,2 million metric tons of food and US$2.1 billion of cash and vouchers. By buying food as close as possible to where it is needed, we can save time and money on transport costs, and help sustain local economies. Increasingly, WFP meets people’s food needs through cash-based transfers that allow the people we serve to choose and shop for their own food locally.
“WFP also provides services to the entire humanitarian community, including passenger air transportation through the UN Humanitarian Air Service, which flies to more than 280 locations worldwide.
“Funded entirely by voluntary donations, WFP raised a record-breaking US$8 billion in 2019. WFP has 20,000 staff worldwide of whom over 90 percent are based in the countries where the agency provides assistance.
“WFP is governed by a 36-member Executive Board. It works closely with its two Rome-based sister organizations, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. WFP partners with more than 1,000 national and international NGOs to provide food assistance and tackle the underlying causes of hunger.”
The countries in which WFP provides assistance are shown in the list from the WFP webpage, https://www.wfp.org/countries, and include many important trading countries like China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and many more in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central and South America. Beneficiary countries include the following:
Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Colombia, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, The Caribbean, The Pacific, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
The December 2020 General Council meeting and proposed General Council Decision
During the December 2020 General Council meeting, there was an effort to adopt a General Council Decision entitled “PROPOSAL ON AGRICULTURE EXPORT PROHIBITIONS OR RESTRICTIONS RELATING TO THE WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME DRAFT GENERAL COUNCIL DECISION,” WT/GC/W/810, TN/AG/46 (4 December 2020). The draft document was modified three times to add cosponsors. WT/GC/W/810/Rev.1, Rev.2, Rev.3. Concerns were raised by India, Pakistan and some African countries (from the above list, at least India and Pakistan and most, if not all others, were beneficiaries of assistance from the the WFP). Hence there was no agreement on adopting the draft General Council Decision. See Washington Trade Daily, December 16, 2020, pages 3-4, WTO Members Talk Food Procurement, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/1b51b4fa-b0a3-4a60-9165-8c5f6d7977a4.pdf; Washington Trade Daily, December 18, 2020, pages 5-6, India Questions WFP Exemption, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/ec47c599-5c0c-47fd-80cf-a46244c5af8b.pdf.
While WTO Members always have multiple concerns and agenda items being pursued, the failure of the membership as a whole to agree to something so limited in nature and so critical for addressing global hunger was disappointing to many and reflects the seeming inability of the WTO Membership to move forward as one on the vast majority of issues before the WTO.
In a post earlier this month, I argued for the need for the WTO to move to liberalization by the willing without benefits for non-participants but with agreements open to all to join. See January 18, 2021, Revisiting the need for MFN treatment for sectoral agreements among the willing, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/18/revisiting-the-need-for-mfn-treatment-for-sectoral-agreements-among-the-willing/. While the MFN issue doesn’t come into play for the 79 Member pledge not to restrict exports to the WFP, the failure of the full WTO membership to agree to the draft General Council Decision is a further manifestation of the need for new approaches to promote expanded trade liberalization.
In recent speeches, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff has expressed both the lack of unity at the WTO on an issue of importance like the draft General Council Decision and also welcomed the joint pledge by the 79 WTO Members not to impose restrictions on exports to the WFP. See WTO press release, DDG Wolff outlines possible responses to calls for WTO reform, 13 January 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_13jan21_e.htm (“Less than a month ago, a General Council meeting took place which lasted over 15 hours (over two and a half days), a recent record for length. It had only one substantive trade policy item on its agenda for decision, the consideration of which produced no agreement. The issue was whether Members would agree to forego a modicum of the policy space they now have by agreeing not to impair procurements by the Nobel-Prize-winning World Food Program. A witness to the proceeding could be forgiven for perceiving drift of the organization in its not living up to its potential. Viewed through a different lens, this was no more than sovereigns reaffirming that they could not be bound without their consent.”); WTO press release, DDG Wolff stresses need to make progress in WTO negotiations to enhance resilience of farm sector, 22 January 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_22jan21_e.htm (“I welcome the pledge this week of WTO members accounting for most of world agricultural exports to refrain from imposing export restrictions on foodstuffs purchased by the World Food Programme for non-commercial humanitarian purposes.”).
If there is to be a WTO capable of reform, the Members will need to reconfirm core principles and find ways to agree instead of searching for excuses to oppose. The membership seems far from sharing a common vision or accepting core principles. Too often, Members are engaged in a search for blocking progress. While all Members undoubtedly share blame for the current challenges, on the topic of blocking the minor proposal to ensure the workings of the WFP, one can look to the Members who remain non-participants in the joint pledge as the problem on this particular issue.
Specifically, the list of those WTO Members pledging not to impose export restrictions on foodstuffs to the WFP is made up of 79 WTO Members, meaning 85 Members did not join the pledge (at least not yet). Some of the major Members who are not participating in the pledge include the following — Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia. the Russian Federation, Hong Kong (China), Turkey. In the WTO’s World Trade Statistical Review 2020, China, Indonesia, Argentina and India are among the top 10 exporters of agricultural products and of food in 2019; China, the Russian Federation and Hong Kong (China) are among the top ten importers in 2019. WTO, World Trade Statistical Review 2020, Tables A-13 and A-14, https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2020_e/wts2020_e.pdf. China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Turkey are all beneficiaries of assistance from the WFP.
While there is much that needs to be done for the restoration of the WTO’s relevance, the pledge by 79 Members suggests that liberalization by the willing may be the only road forward.