My guest Anabel Gonzalez, Costa Rica’s minister of trade and a candidate to be the next head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), is a staunch believer in two powers: that of trade to uplift nations and that of the WTO to help navigate the process.
Minister Gonzalez witnessed the power of trade in her own country, which she says transformed itself from an exporter of four or five basic commodities to an exporter of more than 4,300 products including coffee and bananas but also computer parts.
Her confidence in the value of the WTO as a rules-based trade arbiter stems from a 1997 dispute: the United States had restricted imports of Costa Rican-made underwear. Costa Rica appealed to the WTO, which ruled in Costa Rica’s favor.
“The US did not renew the restriction,” Minister Gonzalez recounts. “This showed that the system could deliver in the interests of a smaller nation.”
“I have a desire to contribute at a greater level and to unleash the power trade for the benefit of all WTO members, but in particular for the benefit of developing country members,” she adds.
I ask Minister Gonzalez whether the one-country, one-vote structure of the WTO is inhibiting progress on the Doha Development Round, which has achieved so little since it began in 2001 that some trade experts think it may never be completed. Could it be, as CGD senior fellow Arvind Subramanian suggested in a recent Wonkcast,that the WTO suffers from “too much democracy”?
Minister Gonzalez says she sees a lot of benefit to the WTO’s democratic structure but adds: “One important challenge that the organization faces is that it’s moved from a smaller number of countries to 158 members.”
“It is a diverse membership, obviously. And with such a wide membership it is important to look at other formats as possible ways of reaching agreement. It would be great if the 158 members could advance in tandem on all issues. That can happen in certain areas, but to be realistic, in other areas it could be different formats such as pluri-lateral agreements… The important part… is that all of this is open to all WTO members.”
As for the Doha Round, Minister Gonzalez says she believes it remains a high priority for WTO members.
“I am aware of the strong skepticism about the future of Doha, but the fact that it has been difficult to reach agreement does not mean the issues are not important. There are elements of Doha that will not go away,” she says.
Minister Gonzalez says she sees the next WTO ministerial meeting, in Bali, Indonesia in December as “a great opportunity” to make progress on trade facilitation, that is, the simplification and harmonization of international trade procedures.
Trade facilitation, she says, is an important topic in itself but also a way for WTO members to “send a strong signal about members' renewed sense of confidence in the ability to reach agreements.”
The full interview is available in audio here and below. This is the second in a planned series of Wonkcasts with candidates to become the next director general of the WTO. To learn when the interviews are posted, sign up for our weekly Development Update.
My thanks to Alex Gordon for editing the Wonkcast and Aaron King for a draft of this blog post.