Trinidad and Tobago

The race to become the next WTO Director-General — where candidates are on important issues: eligibility for Special and Differential Treatment/self-selection as a developing country

[Updated August 27 to incorporate comments by Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi of Moldova at a WITA webinar held on August 26]

During the years of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, countries engaged in a series of rounds of tariff liberalization. The basic principle of Most Favored Nation ensured that any participating country or customs territory would receive the benefits of trade liberalization of others whether or not the individual country made tariff liberalization commitments of its own.

Moreover, the GATT and now the WTO have recognized that countries at different levels of economic development will be able to make different contributions and some may need special and differential treatment to better participate.

Historically, there has been a distinction between developed countries and developing countries, with special and differential (S&D) treatment reserved for the latter. Typically, S&D treatment would permit, inter alia, lesser trade liberalization commitments and longer phase-ins for liberalization undertaken.

During the Uruguay Round, least-developed countries, as defined by the United Nations, were broken out from developing countries to receive lesser obligations than other developing countries. But the categorization as a developing country has always been a matter of self-selection within the GATT and now within the WTO.

Some three quarters of WTO’s current 164 Members have self-declared themselves to be developing countries or are least-developed countries under UN criteria. Thus, only one fourth of WTO Members shoulder full obligations under the current system.

While the Uruguay Round negotiations attempted to deal with “free riders” by requiring all countries and customs territories to bind all or nearly all tariff lines, the results at the creation of the World Trade Organization was a system where the vast majority of Members had relatively high tariff rates in their bindings while developed countries typically have very low tariff rates bound.

After twenty-five years of operation and dramatic economic development by many Members and limited trade liberalization through WTO multilateral negotiations, questions have been raised by the United States and others as to whether the concept of self-selection by countries of developing country status has contributed to the inability of the WTO to achieve further liberalization through negotiations. The U.S. has put forward a definition of who would eligible for developing country status based upon a country not qualifying under any of four criteria. See December 28, 2019, WTO Reform – Will Limits on Who Enjoys Special and Differential Treatment Be Achieved? https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2019/12/28/wto-reform-will-limits-on-who-enjoys-special-and-differential-treatment-be-achieved/. Countries who would not qualify under the U.S. proposal include:

Member of the OECD or in the accession process:

Chile, South Korea, Mexico, Turkey, Colombia, Costa Rica.

Member of the G-20:

India, South Africa, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, China, Indonesia, South Korea.

Classified by World Banks as “high income” for 2016-2018 (includes):

Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Hong Kong, South Korea, Kuwait, Macao, Panama, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Singapore, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay.

0.5% of Merchandise Trade (includes):

China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa.

For many countries who have self-declared as developing countries, the concept of changing their status, regardless of economic development, is untenable and has been actively opposed at the WTO (including by China, India and South Africa).

Four WTO Members who had self-declared as developing countries — Korea, Singapore, Brazil and Costa Rica — have indicated to the WTO that they will not seek special and differential treatment in ongoing or future negotiations (but maintain such rights for existing agreements). Other countries who are self-declared developing countries have blocked an Ambassador from one of the four who have agreed to accept greater obligations from assuming the Chair post for one of the WTO Committees.

The United States has also raised questions about the imbalance of tariff bindings which have flowed from economic development of some countries without additional liberalization of tariffs by those countries and the lack of progress on negotiations. Thus, for the United States there is also the question of whether tariff bindings should be reexamined in light of economic developments over the last twenty-five years. From the WTO’s World Tariff Profiles 2020 the following simple bound tariff rates for all goods are identified for a number of countries. See https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/booksp_e/tariff_profiles20_e.pdf. While for developing countries, bound rates are often much higher than applied rates, the bound rates give those countries the ability to raise applied tariffs without challenge:

“Developed Countries”

United States: 3.4%

European Union: 5.1%

Japan: 4.7%

Canada: 6.4%

“Developing Countries”

China: 10.0%

Brazil: 31.4%

Chile: 25.2%

Costa Rica: 43.1%

Republic of Korea: 16.5%

India: 50.8%

Indonesia: 37.1%

Singapore: 9.5%

South Africa: 19.2%

Thus, for the eight candidates competing for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organization, a challenging topic within the WTO for possible reform is whether the issue of Special and Differential treatment needs review to ensure that its provisions apply to those who actually have a need and not to three quarters of the Members simply because they self-selected. While not necessarily encompassed by the S&D question, for the United States, the issue also subsumes whether WTO reform needs to permit a rebalancing of tariff bindings based on changing economic development for WTO Members.

What follows is a review of the prepared statements to the General Council made by each candidate during July 15-17, my notes on candidates’ responses to questions during the press conference immediately following each candidate’s meeting with the General Council, and my notes on candidates’ responses to questions during webinars hosted by the Washington International Trade Association (WITA) and Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) (as of August 13, seven of the eight candidates have participated in such webinars; the webinar with the Moldovan candidate is being scheduled).

Dr. Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico)

Dr. Seade did not take up the question of special and differential treatment directly as part of his prepared statement. One can read part of his statement to indicate that part of the challenges facing the WTO flow from the lack of success of the negotiating function on traditional issues (which would include further tariff liberalization). Also one could construe the need to modernize the organization as including the need to better reflect the need for all Members to carry the extent of liberalization that their stage of economic development permits.

“In the medium and long term, and in order to prevent the Organization from becoming obsolete and obsolete, it is important that mechanisms be
adopted to modernize it. I will seek to establish an informal dialogue on the
weaknesses and challenges of the Organization in the current context, through annual forums or specialized conferences.

“But thinking about long-term expectations, I am convinced that they have been affected by the lack of significant results in the negotiations since the
creation of the WTO. Thus, as results are achieved on 21st century issues, it will be very important to also energetically take up the traditional priority issues on the sustainable development agenda.” (Google translation from French)

During the press conference, Dr. Seade was asked a question on the issue of developed versus developing country designation. My notes on his response are as follows:

On the question of developed vs. developing country, Dr. Seade looks at it from the perspective of special and differential treatment. On the one hand the world keeps changing, so it’s reasonable to ask what a Member can do. The idea of changing classification of countries from developing to developed will take a very long time and so is probably the wrong approach. The question should be what contribution can a particular member make, which may be different in different industries.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Seade on July 7. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-seade/. Dr. Seade was asked about the issue of self-selection of developing country status and how he would try to get Members to address. My notes on his response follow:

Dr. Seade had this to say:  he believes countries are looking at the issue the wrong way.  Special and differential treatment is like a discount card which you can use at a store.  Some customers have the discount card; some don’t.  The reality in the WTO is that everything is negotiated.  When you negotiate, you can talk to every Member.  If Members make whether and what type of special and differential treatment a Member needs part of negotiations, the outcome can be tailored so that Members are contributing what they can while still accommodating Members where there is a real need. While seeking to define who is a developing country may be an approach that can be taken, Dr. Seade believes that actually getting Members to agree to changing status is an impossible issue.  In his view, status is “theological” for many Members. 

One can look at the trade facilitation agreement for an example of where Members were asked to take on obligations to the extent they could; there were negotiations if more was felt possible from a Member.  The same type of approach can be taken in ongoing and new negotiations.  He believes this is the way to go.  The key question is not who is eligible, but for what does a Member need S&D.  This will be true at a country level (e.g., in Dr. Seade’s view Mexico and Brazil don’t need the same flexibilities as Angola).  But the need for differentiation in a given country may also differ by sector.  In fact the need for special and differential treatment can vary by product. Dr. Seade mentioned Mexico’s agriculture sector, where corn production is not efficient or modern and hence S&D may be necessary but where that is not the case for fruits and vegetable production.  Thus, Dr. Seade believes that going about it on a more practical way is the right way to make progress in the WTO.  Negotiate by agreement by country, etc.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s prepared statement directly notes the differing positions on the issue of special and differential treatment and also mentions concerns of Members in terms of imbalances in rights and obligations and distribution of gains (which presumably includes the U.S. concern about high bound tariff rates of many countries who have gone through significant ecoonomic growth in the last 25 years).

“Members’ views differ on a number of fundamental issues, such as special and differential treatment or the need for the WTO to tackle new issues and develop new or enhanced rules to deal with SOEs and agricultural subsidies, for example.”

“While a key objective of the WTO is the liberalization of trade for the mutual benefit of its Members, it appears that this very concept is now a divisive issue as a result of the perceived imbalances in the rights and obligations of Members and the perceived uneven distribution of the gains from trade. I would constantly remind Members about the value of the MTS and help energize them to work harder to overcome the challenges that have paralyzed the WTO over the years.”

During the press conference on July 15th, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was not a question on S&D treatment, classification of developing countries or on tariff bindings.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on July 21. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her opening comments identified the issue of special and differential treatment as an issue that could be considered as part of WTO reform, although it wasn’t in her list of topics for tackling by the next WTO Ministerial Conference. She was asked a question about how to restore trust among Members and used that question to review her thoughts on special and differential treatment and the question of self-selection by Members as developing countries. Below is my summary of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s discussion of the issue.

One issue being pushed by the United States and others that is very divisive is the issue of special and differential treatment and self-selection of developing country status.  The concern of those wanting a change is that self-selection and the automatic entitlement to S&D treatment shifts the balance of rights and obligations to advanced developing countries.  There is no disagreement that least-developed countries need special and differential treatment. In her view, the real question is whether other countries that view themselves as developing should get special and differential treatment automatically.  Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala believes the WTO needs a creative approach to resolve the issue.  For example, Members should address the need of individual Members for special and differential treatment on a negotiation by negotiation basis.  Members should, as part of each negotiation, consider what other Members believe their needs are based on level of development.  She references the Trade Facilitation Agreement as an example where Members took on obligations based on their level of development vs. a one size fits all approach.  Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala believes that if the Members can reach a resolution on this issue, the resolution would help build trust among Members and hence help the WTO move forward.

Mr. Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt)

Mr. Mamdouh’s prepared statement did not directly deal with the topic of special and differential treatment or the changing economic competitiveness of Members. There is one statement towards the end of his statement which recognizes the evolving nature of the Membership.

“Since then, global trade has transformed, and trading powers have evolved. The circumstances and dynamics have changed. But the skillset we require of the leadership: imaginative thinking, and the ability to come up with legally sound and enforceable solutions – remain the same.”

During his press conference on July 15, Mr. Mamdouh was not asked a question on S&D treatment or the criteria for being a developing country.

WITA had a webinar with Mr. Mamdouh on June 23. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-candidate-hamid-mamdouh/. Mr. Mamdough was asked a question during the webinar on whether the large number of WTO Members who have self-declared as developing countries and hence are eligible for special and differential treatment doesn’t undermine the credibility of the organization and what he would do about it if he was Director-General. Below is my summary of Mr. Mamdouh’s response.

Mr. Mamdouh believes that the issue should be addressed in a pragmatic maner. He referred back to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) negotiated during the Uruguay Round and noted that the GATS contains no special and differential treatment provisions.  Thus, in the GATS, Members moved away from a system of country classifications.  In Mr. Mamdouh’s view, obligations should be customized based on a Member’s needs/abilities through negotiations.  Flexibilities to address particular Member needs can be determined individually.  While this was the approach in GATS, Members can do that on goods on any area that can be scheduled but also rule making areas.  In Mr. Mamdouh’s view for any substantive obligations, there is room to customize obligations through negotiations.  He believes that big developing countries wouldn’t oppose different countries taking on different obligations.  He doesn’t believe that a solution will be in negotiating a different categorization system.  The solution for the WTO is to take a pragmatic approach and customize the outcome based on negotiations.  Mr. Mamdouh referenced fisheries subsidies as an example where that could occur.  He believes customizing obligations based on individual Member needs will be increasingly necessary, citing the 164 current Members.  But he cautions that no “one size fits all”.  Every solution would need to be tailored on the basis of the area being negotiated.

Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova)

Amb. Ulianovschi’s prepared statement to the General Council on July 16 covers a wide range of issues that need to be addressed going forward, but, does not mention the issue of special and differential treatment or which Members should not be eligible to be developing countries based on economic developments. Amb. Ulianovschi does have one sentence in his prepared statement which talks generally about addressing global inequalities.

“The WTO is one of the most complex organizations in the world today, and it’s one of the most needed as to ensure open, predictable, inclusive, rule based multilateral trading system, as well as – to address global inequalities and bridge the gap between the least developed, developing and developed countries.”

At the press conference on July 16, Amb. Ulianovschi was asked many questions but none of the developing country/special and differential treatment issue.

WITA held a webinar with Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi on August 26, 2020. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-tudor-ulianovschi/. During the webinar, Amb. Ulianovschi mentioned special and differential treatment both in his opening statement and in answer to a question. My notes on Amb. Ulianovschi’s comments are provided below.

From his opening statement, Amb. Ulianovschi noted that as a member driven organization, the WTO needs Members to negotiate to move forward.  He believes that a diplomatically active Director-General can help the WTO move forward, and he can help address lack of trust which he believes is largely psychological primarily based on unfinished business but also dispute settlement, special and differential treatment and other issues.

Q:  How important is it to have a reform agenda, and how can you convince major Members to agree on a common agenda? A:    Amb. Ulianovschi stated that reform is absolutely necessary.  In his view, cosmetic reform is not sufficient, a fact made clear by major Members.  Amb. Ulianovschi believes that political experience and dialogue by the Director-General will be key to get those who have put forward proposals to get into a discussion that is inclusive and transparent.  There are a large number of issues that are affecting the environment at the WTO.  For example, the WTO needs to address the horizontal issue of Special and Differential Treatment (S&D).  The S&D principle is at the core of the organization, but it is how you apply the principle which determines commitments of Members.  From that point of view, Amb. Ulianovschi sees it as a positive signal that major players are putting forward proposals on this topic.  The proposals should be the starting point for discussions.  Amb. Ulianovschi would invite those who have put forward proposals to start discussions with other Members.  Negotiations need political will to succeed, and Members need to agree on how to proceed.  He believes that if he is Director-General, he can get Members to that point.

H.E. Yoo Myung-hee (Republic of Korea)

Minister Yoo’s prepared statement covers many issues but does not address the issue of special and differential treatment/developing country classification.

In her press conference on July 17 after meeting with the General Council, Minister Yoo was asked a question on developing vs. developed country status. My notes on her response follow:

A question was asked how Minister Yoo viewed the question of the status of Members as developed or developing countries particularly in light of Korea viewing itself as a developing country in the WTO although Korea has indicated it will not seek additional special and differential treatment under future WTO Agreements. Minister Yoo started her response by noting that the Marrakesh Agreement requires that the WTO work to help developing and least developed countries secure their fair share of trade. There are competing issues at the WTO. Should the WTO make special and differential treatment provisions more operational in existing Agreements is one issue. Should the WTO change the classification status of some countries based on economic development is the other issue. For Korea, the. world has changed, and countries have changed in terms of their stage of economic development. Korea decided to take on more responsibility based on its changing level of economic development. But many countries continue to need special and differential treatment. It would be ideal for developing countries to take on more responsibilities as they are able. But this is a sensitive issue on which there is no consensus as yet.

WITA had a webinar with Minister Yoo on August 11.  https://www.wita.org/event-videos/candidate-h-e-yoo-myung-hee/. Below is my summary of the question asked on the issue of special and differential treatment and self-selection of developing country status, and Minister Yoo’s response:

Korea has informed the WTO that Korea will not seek S&D treatment in ongoing or future negotiations.  Many Members thinks the self-selection of developing country status is undermining the system.  How do you evaluate the issue and how important is it to resolve?

Minister Yoo indicated that this is an important issue to resolve to make progress in ongoing and future negotiations.  She believes it is important to reflect on a core principle of the WTO to ensure that developing countries and least-developed countries secure their fair share of global trade.  The question for the WTO is how to effectuate this embedded principle.

Over half of WTO Members are developing countries and 36 others are least developed countries. In total roughly three fourths of all Members get special and differential treatment.  If so many are eligible for special and differential treatment, it likely means that the countries with the greatest needs are not receiving the assistance actually needed to help their development and greater participation in international trade.

In Minister Yoo’s view, the WTO has very divergent views among Members about changing the classification process for Members from self-selection to a set of factual criteria.  US has put forward a proposal to categorize members as developed based on different factual criteria.  However, there is no consensus at the WTO at the moment which means that changing the classification process will not happen until there is consensus.  In light of the lack of consensus, a pragmatic approach may be to have countries who can take on more responsibilities to do so voluntarily.  This will permit those who need assistance to get it.

Looking at the Trade Facilitation Agreement, while the Agreement is not necessarily representative of other areas under negotiation, it shows one way to handle the issue of special and differential treatment in a pragmatic way.  Some developing countries take on more responsibility than others without S&D treatment and without a transition period.  This is an example of how through negotiations, Members can customize obligations to individual Member capabilities.  Such an approach is practical and pragmatic.

In Korea’s case, Korea indicated that they would not seek S&D treatment in ongoing and future negotiations based on Korea’s state of economic development.  It was not an easy decision and required extensive internal consultations.  Korea wants to promote the WTO system.  She believes it is useful for each country to step up and take on more responsibility if they are capable of doing so.  The U.S. proposal has been important in raising the issue.  While no consensus exists at the moment, the U.S. action has gotten Members discussing the matter.  If Minister Yoo is selected to be the next Director-General, she would continue to raise the issue with Members to achieve a good outcome for all. She believes resolution of the issue can help unlock progress in ongoing and future negotiations.

H.E. Amina C. Mohamed (Kenya)

Minister Mohamed’s prepared statement contains a number of statements which recognize the need of Members to contribute according to their ability, although she does not address the classification of developing countries or the need for special and differential treatment specifically.

“Renewal has to start with facing up to the defects that have weakened the system in recent years: the inability to update rules to reflect the changing realities of how trade is conducted; the sterility of ideological standoffs; the retreat into defensiveness; and the sense of the benefits of trade not being equitably shared.”

“All Members should contribute to trade opening and facilitation efforts, especially those most in a position to do so.”

“We need a WTO that is fair and equitable, taking into account the level of economic development of each member. All WTO Members must be prepared to contribute to improving and strengthening the organization, so that it can facilitate trade for the benefit of all, and contribute to economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic.”

During Minister Mohamed’s press conference on July 16, no questions were asked about developing country status or on special and differential treatment.

WITA had a webinar with H.E. Mohamed on August 6. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/ambassador-amina-mohamed/. During the webinar, Minister Mohamed both made several comments on special and differential treatment and self-selection of developing country status, but also answered a question. My notes on her comments and the question asked are summarized below:

One of issues needing to be addressed by the WTO are the current “divisions over developing country status”.

We need a WTO that is fair and equitable considering the level of economic development of each Member.  The WTO should give effect to its development objectives in a practical and enabling way that takes into account needs and results.  All WTO Members must be prepared to contribute to strengthening and improving the WTO system.

Q: The U.S. has raised the issue of self-declaration of developing country status.  How would you handle the issue if you become Director-General?

Minister Mohamed noted that special and differential treatment is an integral part of existing agreements.  However, going forward, the journey to modify the approach to S&D has already begun. ” The train has already left the station.” Minister Mohamed noted that in the Trade Facilitation Agreement, any special treatment was based on the need of the individual Member. Countries assumed obligations they were able to, so different developing countries assumed different levels of obligations with or without transition periods.

Second, self-declaration by certain countries that they would no longer seek special and differential treatment has already occurred (Korea, Brazil, Singapore and Costa Rica).  Minister Mohamed believes the WTO will see more of this going forward by other countries.  If Minister Mohamed is selected to be the next Director-General, she would continue discussions among the Members and have candid discussions with some of the Members.  But she believes moving forward, special and differential treatment will be increasingly based on actual need.

H.E. Mohammed Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia)

Minister Al-Tuwaijri in his prepared statement to the General Council on July 17 addressed briefly the proposal from the U.S. on special and differential treatment (classification of developing countries):

“Concerning Special and Differential Treatment, the bottom line is, without negotiations that include incentives for everyone to participate actively, I do not think it will be possible for Members to address the issue of SDT. This is one of the main reasons that the negotiating function needs to start working. Members have various capacities to implement and take advantage of new rules and commitments, so it is clear that each Member must decide for itself what is in its own interest.”

At his press conference on July 17, Minister Al-Tuwaijri was not asked a question on special and differential treatment or of classification of developing countries.

WITA did a webinar with Minister Al-Tuwaijri on August 5. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/director-general-candidate-he-mohammed-al-tuwaijri/. During the webinar Minister Al-Tuwaijri was not asked a question on self-selection of developing country status or on special and differential treatment.

The Rt Hon Dr. Liam Fox MP

Dr. Fox’s prepared statement to the General Council on July 17 did not include any references to special and differential treatment or to the classification of developing countries.

During his press conference on July 17, Dr. Fox was not asked a question dealing with special and differential treatment or the classification of developing countries.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Fox on July 30, 2020. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-dr-liam-fox/. Dr. Fox was asked about the concerns expressed by the U.S. and others that the process of self-selection of developing country status had resulted in too many Members having special and differential treatment. There was a need to see that S&D is limited to those who actually need help. How would Dr. Fox address this issue if he were selected as the Director-General? What follows reflects my notes on Dr. Fox’s response.

Dr. Fox stated that first, the WTO must reassess that we are all aiming at the same goal.  As the WTO has expanded membership, Members knew that the organization would have countries with vast differences in capabilities and that it would take different countries different amounts of time to get to full implementation.  Thus, special and differential treatment is available. However, Dr. Fox understands that there are some WTO Members who want to be perpetually exempted from undertaking full obligations regardless of the level of economic development they have achieved. Dr. Fox views this approach as unacceptable. Membership in an organization envisions equal rights and obligations, though it may take some members longer to get there.

On the topic of special and differential treatment, Dr. Fox believes that it is important to accelerate the rate of development for countries that are developing or least-developed, so that their improved level of economic development means they don’t need special and differential treatment.  One of the reasons some Members gave Dr. Fox for not wanting to be moved into a different category, was the concern over loss of trade preferences.  Dr. Fox used as an example, small coastal economies who can experience wide swings in per capita GDP based on external events (hurricanes, etc.) which can move them from high income to low income and back in short order.  Dr. Fox believes WTO Members must think creatively on how to address concerns of Members that giving up developing country status will put them in difficulties. On his example, he suggested using multiple year averages.

Conclusion

As the WTO has become a much more universal organization, membership has widely expanded beyond the historical developed country proponents of the GATT. At the same time, in recent decades there has been tremendous economic development by many countries which should mean that the ability of Members to handle full or increased obligations of the WTO has increased for many countries.

Yet, the current system does not provide a means for modifying obligations of Members who joined as developing country members regardless of the level of development achieved after joining. The view of some Members is that this disconnect between actual economic development and level of commitments undertaken has contributed to the inability to conclude negotiations. The issues raised by the United States have resulted in a few countries indicating that they will not seek special and differential treatment in ongoing or future negotiations. In at least one recent agreement, the Trade Facilitation Agreement, countries have assumed obligations based on their perceived need and not as a general right with the result of countries who may have self-selected developing country status taking on more obligations with lower or no delay in implementation than other developing countries.

For the incoming Director-General, finding a solution to this issue acceptable to all Members could be critical to unlocking progress on other negotiations.