Viet Nam

The folly of self-selection as a developing country at the WTO

In prior posts I have reviewed efforts by the United States and others to have the WTO membership modify who is entitled to special and differential treatment in light of the rapid changes in economic capabilities of a number of countries who have classified themselves as “developing” countries at the WTO under the self-designation approach that has characterized the GATT and now the WTO. See, e.g., December 14, 2020:  WTO December 14th Heads of Delegation meeting – parting comments of U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea,; August 13, 2020 [updated August 27]:  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,; February 15, 2020: The U.S. Modifies the List of Developing and Least Developed Countries Under U.S. Countervailing Duty Law,; December 28, 2019: WTO Reform – Will Limits on Who Enjoys Special and Differential Treatment Be Achieved?,

The issue is one of importance because of the concern that many Members who have economically advanced to be fully internationally competitive or internationally competitive in significant areas of goods or services are not opening their markets to a level commensurate with their actual stage of development. A number of Members have indicated that they will not seek Special and Differential treatment in new agreements while maintaining rights under existing ones. The U.S., the EU and others have sought a more factual basis for any entitlement to differential treatment.

On November 10, 2021, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala addressed the WTO Committee on Trade and Development (“CTD”) See WTO News Release, “Development issues should be at the heart of work at the WTO“— DG Okonjo-Iweala, 10 November 2021, The press release starts with an overview of the importance of development in the overall WTO mission,

“Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala highlighted the key role that trade plays in economic development during a meeting of the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Development (CTD) on 10 November. She stressed that development is a priority for the WTO and that the CTD plays an important role in addressing the development dimension in the multilateral trading system.

“DG Okonjo-Iweala stressed that the work of the WTO is important for developing and least  developed countries (LDCs),  hence, it is critical for the WTO to deliver on issues of importance to them. Trade is a significant driver for economic growth and poverty reduction and ultimately for development, she added.”

The press release later has a statement that “The Secretariat presented the findings of its latest report concerning the participation of developing economies in global trade.” The latest report is PARTICIPATION OF DEVELOPING ECONOMIES IN THE GLOBAL TRADING SYSTEM, NOTE BY THE SECRETARIAT, 28 October 2021, WT/COMTD/W/262.

The problem with the note from the Secretariat and the functioning of the Committee on Trade and Development and other aspects of the WTO work is that developing countries in the note is treated as all Members so designating themselves and hence provides little useful information on the role of countries in actual need of assistance. Data in the note is skewed by information on developing Asia — an area that includes China, Singapore, the Republic of Korea and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan). On pages 8-9 of the Secretariat note, the major “developing” country traders are reviewed. The top 15 developing country exporters in 2020 were Chins (34.0%), Republic of Korea (6.7%), Mexico (5.5%), Singapore (4.8%), Chinese Taipei (4.6%), United Arab Emirates (4.2%), Viet Nam (3.7%), India (3.6%), Malaysia (3.1%), Thailand (3.0%), Brazil (2.8%), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2.3%), Turkey (2.2%), Indonesia (2.1%), South Africa (1.1%), other (16.4%). The top 15 importer developing countries included all of the top exporters with the exception of South Africa (Hong Kong, China was the 15th largest importer).

The World Bank provides Gross National Income per capita for most countries/territories (China blocks provision of data for Chinese Taipei). The latest data are for 2020 and include the following ranges for the four categories of World Bank countries:

Low income countries, less than $1,048/capita GNI

lower middle-income economies, $1,048-4,095/capita GNI

upper middle-income economies, $4,096-12,695/capita GNI

high income economies, $12,696 or more/capita GNI.

China in 2020 had a per capita GNI of $10,610; Singapore had a 2020 per capita GNI of $54,920; Republic of Korea had a 2020 per capita GNI of $32,860; Chinese Taipei had a per capita GDP in 2021 of $33,402; Mexico had a 2020 per capita GNI of 8,480; the United Arab Republic had a 2019 per capita GNI of $43,470; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had a 2020 per capita GNI of $21,930; Hong Kong, China, had a 2020 per capita GNI of $48,630; Thailand had a 2020 per capita GNI of $7,050; Malaysia had a 2020 per capita GNI of $11,230; Turkey had a 2020 per capita GNI of $9,030; Brazil had a 2020 per capita GNI of $7,850.

See New World Bank country classifications by income level: 2021-2022, July 1, 2021,; World Bank Country and Lending Groups, ← Country Classification,; GNI per capita, Atlas method (current US$) – China, (lists all countries); Wikipedia, Economy of Taiwan,

There is obviously no justification in high income economies receiving special and differential treatment as though they are developing countries in fact. Thus, data for Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, UAE, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be in the developing country data base. Similarly, China and Malaysia with per capita GNIs above $10,000 and purchasing power parity gross national income per capita (2019) above the minimum high income economy threshold ($16,790 for China; $28,830 for Malaysia) shouldn’t be eligible for special and differential treatment as a general rule. Brazil, Thailand, Turkey and Mexico while below $10,000 per capita GNI in 2020 have 2019 per capita purchasing power parity GNI higher than the high income economy threshold ($14,890 for Brazil; $26,840 for Mexico; $18,570 for Thailand; $27,660). There is no apparent logic in having these countries have automatic rights to special and differential treatment.

The Secretariat, of course, cannot change the classification of Members. But the lack of a rational standard for determining appropriateness of receiving special and differential treatment undermines the functioning of the WTO and permits countries who have succeeded at rapid economic development from assuming full obligations of WTO membership. The problem also results in statistical reports that are largely meaningless.

In a consensus based system like the WTO, the road to rationality will be long at best with many WTO Members who should have accepted full obligations by now continuing to hide behind the self-selection process to claim lesser obligations.