Trade policy training challenged, but donors commit more funds

25 March 2002

The heads of six major international institutions met in late February to discuss their roles in trade policy formulation. They agreed to do more to help poorer countries prioritise trade reform, and improve their ability to negotiate in international fora. Shortly after this, a number of non-government organisations released a statement raising concerns about official approaches to trade policy capacity building.

The top men from the World Bank, WTO, IMF, UNCTAD, UNDP and ITC attended the meeting at the World Bank headquarters on 26 February. The meeting discussed the Integrated Framework (IF) – an initiative to enable these agencies to collaborate to help governments in poorer countries understand the increasingly complex trade policy areas. Their joint communique urged further opening of developed country markets for products originating from the poorest countries but also for poorer countries to do more themselves. “Domestic regulatory reform and coherent macroeconomic and trade policies are necessary. It is essential that trade priority areas of action, including trade-related technical assistance, are reflected within development plans and strategies for poverty reduction”.

The joint statement went on to “reaffirm the lead role of the World Bank in supporting the process to mainstream trade into development plans and strategies for poverty reduction”. The Bank is leading a process of conducting “Diagnostic Trade Integration Studies” to assess countries’ needs for technical assistance. The results of these studies are then expected to be integrated into Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and tabled at donor coordination meetings. The paper also urges “better coordination between national IF Steering Committees and the PRSP Committees”.

To encourage division of labour among the agencies involved in trade policy capacity building, a database of who is doing what and a new Integrated Framework website are being developed.

Twenty civil society organisations – including major international organisations and networks such as DAWN, International South Group Network and Public Services International signed a statement which flagged concerns about official approaches to capacity building. It agreed that “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”. However, “important questions remain about how capacity building will be delivered and by whom”. The statement complained that the technical assistance plan had largely been drawn up by the WTO Secretariat and prioritises the new and controversial trade negotiation areas (including investment, competition and government procurement). It continues that “a large part of the Plan involves the Integrated Framework for Trade Related Technical Assistance (IF), a programme which has already been tried and failed”. The statement condemned the allocation of responsibilities in the revamped IF as “unbalanced”, saying that the major role being allocated to the World Bank was “a cause for concern”. It urged mechanisms which give governments “the flexibility to choose the agency and the form of assistance that they feel to be most appropriate”.

Despite these concerns, governments agreed to commit an extra $18 million at a meeting in Switzerland on 12 March. A trade official at the meeting commented: “money is now not the issue. It’s finding the people and spending it wisely that will be the problem.”

Civil society joint statement on trade policy training concerns

The Bretton Woods Project is preparing a briefing on the World Bank’s role in trade-related technical assistance.