WTO Delivers the Goods

The deadening rituals of global trade negotiations – protocols, ministerials, general councils and the like – might finally yield something good for a world economy that is stuck in neutral. It’s only taken 20 years.

The World Trade Organization recently agreed to a long-stalled $1 trillion package of reforms to global customs and border rules. The reforms are desperately needed to lubricate a creaking global economy and would be the first multi-lateral agreement produced by the WTO in its two decades of existence. The WTO package offers real hope for small businesses, farmers, job seekers and others in rich and poor countries alike.

The details of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) aren’t finalized yet, but they take aim at the bottlenecks and red tape impeding cross-border trade. The exponential growth in global trade since 1990 obscures a central fact: trade is inefficient.

16451283_MThe movement of goods takes too long and costs too much.  There are staggering disparities between countries in the amount of documentation, waiting times, inspection routines and charges required to move a container of goods across the border. The most trade-friendly countries – a tiny handful — require three documents to move a shipment in or out. Elsewhere the number balloons to 40 documents involving different parties and requiring the rekeying of data on the forms. The disparity can add thousands of dollars to the cost of moving a container and be the deciding factor in whether a business is competitive or not.

There’s no magic in the WTO package. The measures included would eliminate paperwork, make rules more transparent, fast-track some low-risk shipments, and create “single windows” for importers and exporters to pay fees and submit documents.

The magic will be in the results. The WTO package could cut the cost of trade by up to 15%, boost the global flow of goods, accelerate economic growth and add up to 20 million new jobs, most of them in developing nations. Producers will get access to more markets and consumers. Consumers will get more choices, lower prices and better access to new ideas and innovative products.

The TFA was slated for approval in July but nearly died because of an impasse created by India over an unrelated issue before the WTO.  By salvaging the agreement, the WTO gets much-needed credibility and restores viability to the multi-lateral trade negotiation process.

The WTO’s 159 member countries should not rest on their laurels. The global economy can’t wait another 20 years.

Tarek Sultan is CEO of Agility, a global logistics company headquartered in Kuwait that publishes the annual Agility Emerging Markets Logistics Index.