[Read more session reports from WTO Public Forum 2019]
The opening plenary debate was introduced by Mr Roberto Azevêdo (Director-General, World Trade Organization (WTO)). Azevêdo explained that trade is not only about commerce, but also about hope for our businesses and our society. Trade is quickly evolving, and new technologies are reshaping the way business is being conducted around the world. Such technological advancements, combined with the greater tradeability of services and how new generations are joining the workforce, make it necessary for the WTO and the trading system to change. Governments must adapt new policies and make the necessary institutional changes, while businesses must adapt to the ever-changing rules of the game. Breakthroughs in technology have forced the world to deal with similar questions since the 17th century. The current challenge is to collectively adapt to the fourth industrial revolution, which has brought forth new innovations such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, and new questions about intangible assets such as personal data. New technologies have the potential to enable once unimaginable prosperity, but without effective regulations, they may also lead to the exclusion of many groups and therefore cause instability. The WTO provides members with the opportunity to formulate rules that are fit for the 21st century, in consultation with representatives of the private sector, academia, and others.
Ms Tina Fordham (Director and Chief Global Political Analyst, Citi) described the interplay between the economy and politics. She noted that the return of steady economic growth does not signify the end of political turbulence. She stated that President Trump has ushered in a new era of direct communication via Twitter, which is a game changer that cannot be reversed. The incessant nature of these new lines of communication can make people tune out of political discourse. Decision-makers must learn how to utilise social media in a manner that engages citizens, rather than turning them away.
Mr Jeffrey D. Sachs (University Professor and Director, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University) described how we are completely dependent on the trading system to live decently. Food, amenities, and basic technology are all the primary subjects of trade. According to Sachs, the foreign policy goal of the USA is to isolate China from global trade, which is why the USA is aiming to break the trading system. However, the system must be protected, as we are dependent on it to survive and prosper, and that it is vital for peace. He underlined the challenges of sustainable development and climate change, and how the trading system is now grappling with a wide range of digital issues. People do not know how to live safely with newer innovations yet – governments manipulate such technologies and private companies manipulate data. Big tech companies maintain a large lobbying presence in Washington, which helps them remain largely unregulated. Sachs also stated that while technology increases aggregate national income, it can also exacerbate inequalities, societal stresses, and lead to populism. It is clear that we need better redistribution policies and fairer taxation in order to ensure the well-being of all.
Ms Melanie Kreis (Chief Financial Officer, Deutsche Post DHL Group) noted that there has been considerable growth in cross-border parcel shipments, primarily enabled by e-commerce. E-commerce helps in making trade more inclusive by connecting both developing countries and small and medium sized enterprises to global flows of data. Kreis also spoke about the use of blockchain in trade, describing how it could make trade facilitation significantly easier. For example, because it is immutable, it could be used to document the shipment, ownership, and authorisation of goods. When talking about e-commerce workshops that the DHL Group has held for entrepreneurs in developing countries, she noted that half of the participants are women, further underlining that e-commerce enables the inclusion of women.
Mr Adebola Williams (Chief Executive Officer, RED | For Africa) stressed that the Internet democratised the trading space, and that social media has democratised access in this space. One future-proof skill the youth should have is to understand the Internet – more precisely, how it works and how to leverage it for their benefit. The Internet will help people amplify their jobs, not take them away. To that end, while companies today are realising the advantages of innovations such as the Internet, they must ensure that values such as equality, equity, and inclusivity are firmly embedded in the way they do business.