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THE ISSUE (ON THE LEFT): Still a vital role for development


Wayne McCook

THE ISSUE (ON THE LEFT): Still a vital role for development

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Is there still a case for special and differential treatmentin international trade?

Special and differential treatment has been an integral feature of the multi-lateral trading system as it has developed since the establishment of the General Agreement Tariffs And Trade (GATT). Special and differential treatment measures seek to address the gaps between developed and developing countries in their relative capacities to accept and implement various trade disciplines, including through the provision of trade related assistance programmes.

It has evolved over the years, from the early GATT focus on providing flexibility to developing countries in the use of tariffs and quotas, to the Uruguay Round approach where the focus shifted to provisions for derogations, delays for exemptions from new disciplines, and best endeavour commitments from development countries to provide technical assistance and other forms of support to developing countries and least developed countries.

Special and differential treatment in its modern form addresses special market access, policy space and the principle of less than full reciprocity. Despite the evolution in special and differential treatment to encompass these important elements, it is argued that, in practice, special and differential treatment has, so far, failed to provide effective and adequate means for securing the better integration of many developing countries and least developed countries into the multilateral trade system or promote strong trade-led development.

The 2001 Doha Ministeral Declaration reaffirmed the importance of special and differential treatment provisions and stressed that the integration of developing countries into the multilateral trading system will require meaningful market access, support for diversification of their production and export base, as well as trade related technical assistance and capacity building. It is argued that interpretative ambiguities and the absence of binding technical assistance and capacity building commitments on the part of developed countries have undermined special and differential treatment in practice.

Paragraph 44 of the Doha Ministerial Declaration, in which “members agreed that all special and differential treatment provisions shall be reviewed with a view to strengthening them and making them more precise, effective and operational”, underscored members’ recognition of the inadequacy of special and differential treatment as reflected so far in the various agreements and decisions of the GATT/WTO. In order for special and differential treatment provisions to be effective, practical and results-oriented measures designed to address the specific concerns and needs of beneficiary countries at the national level are required.

Assistance should be prioritised in favour of those most in need, but must at the same time address the concerns of all developing countries. Programmes must also address the resource and capacity related limitations that constrain the abilities of many countries to use these provisions to their advantage. The WTO must provide rules that allow members to advance without impeding the progress of others. Special and differential treatment therefore remains a vital and important measure of WTO effectiveness and credibility as an institution supportive of development.

An effective special and differential treatment approach for the 21st century must enable developing countries and least developed countries with flexible and effective tools for deepending their integration into the multilateral trading system and achieving sustainable development through trade. The special and differential treatment approach adopted in the Trade Facilitation Agreement and the efforts underway to pursue the goals set in paragraph 44 of the Doha Development Agenda provide avenues for updating special and differential treatment to further assist developing countries and lesser developed countries in the effort to promote trade led development.

Wayne McCook is Jamaica’s permanent representative to the United Nations Office, the World Trade Organisation and other international organisations in Geneva, Switzerland.


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