From Abu Dhabi to Islamabad: Translating MC13 outcomes for Pakistan’s trade agenda

From Abu Dhabi to Islamabad: Translating MC13 outcomes for Pakistan’s trade agenda

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The 13th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi marked an important moment for global trade governance. The declaration notably highlighted the often-overlooked role of women in trade, recognizing their participation as both a fundamental right and an economic driver. This acknowledgment holds particular significance for countries like Pakistan, which advocate for gender equality on the global stage but encounter challenges in implementation domestically.

While MC13 evidenced progress in dispute settlement reform, persistent challenges remain. The extension of the e-commerce moratorium for two years raises pertinent questions about balancing digital trade facilitation with regulatory sovereignty. Additionally, the unresolved issue of agricultural subsidies looms large, with concerns voiced by farmers in the EU and India, highlighting the imperative for transparent negotiations. It is essential to recognize that subsidies impact not only trade dynamics but also food security, rural livelihoods, and environmental sustainability.

Regrettably, the Global South, including Pakistan, faced limitations in agenda-setting at MC13, curtailing their ability to effectively advocate for their interests. To address this, proactive pre-conference engagement is imperative. Countries such as Pakistan must engage in robust local preparations, consulting with stakeholders including industry representatives, consumer groups, and independent think tanks.

Pull-quote: While recent years have not seen exemplary success for the Global South in the MC process, it remains one of the leading platforms for global trade governance.

- Vaqar Ahmed

Lessons collected from comparable developing countries that successfully navigated MC13 are useful. Independent think tanks and civil society organizations in these countries, including business associations, played a pivotal role in shaping their stance. In Pakistan’s case, such entities could have facilitated MC13’s agenda through rigorous research and analysis, given their nuanced understanding of WTO negotiations. Evidence-based research could have informed Pakistan’s stance on critical matters such as subsidies, climate change, and its impact on trade dynamics and agricultural production.

During the early 2000s, institutions such as the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and the Pakistan Institute of Trade & Development (PITAD) played a crucial role in capacity-building, empowering government officials, negotiators, and diplomats to navigate trade agreements comprehensively. These institutions bridged the gap between academia, policymakers, and the public, advocating for an informed trade discourse at the WTO that promotes sustainable development, job creation, and equitable distribution of benefits. Similar local institutional models are required today to disseminate knowledge about ministerial meetings’ implications for Pakistani stakeholders.

Donor bodies and multilateral development banks (MDBs) in Pakistan could significantly support the country’s effective participation in the WTO. Technical assistance, financial support, and expertise are imperative to boost Pakistan’s trade policy institutions. Collaborating with local Pakistani think tanks, MDBs can conduct studies on the impact of proposed trade agreements, informing evidence-based policy decisions. Moreover, facilitating North-South-South (triangular) cooperation can foster knowledge exchange between Pakistan and other developing countries experienced in WTO negotiations.

Regrettably, Pakistani Chambers of Commerce and Industries and other business associations are not recognized as significant voices in international trade. Enhancing their effectiveness is essential to provide expertise on trade policy implications, organize stakeholder consultations, and build negotiating capacity for member enterprises. The voices of provincial governments and their industries and commerce departments remain muted when it comes to matters involving global trade negotiations. There is certainly no capabilities deficit in these departments, however the very process of sourcing advice from provincial governments for international negotiations is missing. 

Pakistan’s trade competitiveness stands at a crossroads. Pressures to liberalize imports raise concerns about foreign exchange reserves, while export receipts remain stagnant. Nonetheless, recent developments at WTO present opportunities for Pakistan. To capitalize, trade governance institutions, particularly the Ministry of Commerce, must enhance engagement, actively participating in WTO committees, working groups, and dispute settlement mechanisms to voice concerns and shape future trade rules. In the future, Pakistan must demand dedicated dialogue at MC on trade and climate given that it is one of the worst affected by climate related threats. Likewise, Pakistan trades with a western neighbor that has porous borders and poses security threats. Global trade rules must allow compensation if trading with countries having fragile governance causes tangible economic harm. 

Aligning domestic trade policies with WTO regulations is imperative, necessitating strengthening institutions and legal frameworks facilitating trade compliance. Streamlining bureaucratic processes, enhancing transparency, and ensuring efficient implementation of trade agreements are essential. Furthermore, federal-provincial coordination on various aspects of trade and tax policies is necessary.

Following the proactive stance of the 2000s, Pakistan can play a leading role in advocating for the interests of developing countries at the WTO. Building alliances with other developing economies and advocating for fairer trade rules that prioritize job creation, environmental considerations, and food security for vulnerable populations is important. Addressing issues like agricultural subsidies in developed countries that distort global trade patterns can foster a more level playing field.

While recent years have not seen exemplary success for the Global South in the MC process, it remains one of the leading platforms for global trade governance. The missed opportunities of today must serve as lessons to expedite progress in the aforementioned directions.

Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is an economist and former civil servant. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view