THE ISSUE: Some adjustments necessary
Is there still a case for special and differential treatmentin international trade?
Barbados is one of the world’s smallest independent nations. It is also one of its most vulnerable, including economically. The island is not alone in this regard, however, as its characteristics and challenges are similar and in many cases identical to islands in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Barbados, like other countries in the Caribbean and throughout the world is a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which sets the rules and determines how the game will be played, so to speak, in international trade. In theory Barbados and countries like those in African, Caribbean, and Pacific grouping have an equal say at the negotiating table – in reality, they do not, considering they are negotiating with and against large economic powerhouses.
Hence small nations have long lobbied for an ease, what they call special and differential treatment, in light of their size and vulnerabilities. The WTO’s agreements have adopted “special provisions which give developing countries special rights and which give developed countries the possibility to treat developing countries more favourably than other WTO members”.
These special and differential treatment provisions include “longer time periods for implementing agreements and commitments”, “measures to increase trading opportunities for developing countries, provisions requiring all WTO members to safeguard the trade interests of developing countries”, “support to help developing countries build the capacity to carry out WTO work, handle disputes, and implement technical standards, and provisions related to least developed country members”.
In 2013 at the WTO’s Bali Ministerial Conference, a mechanism was established to “review and analyse the implementation of special and differential treatment provisions”. The aim was to give members the ability to “make recommendations to the relevant WTO bodies – aimed at either improving the implementation of reviewed provisions, or improving the provisions themselves through re-negotiations”.
While small vulnerable countries like Barbados welcome the special and differential treatment provisions, there remains concern about whether it has worked as envisaged. Some have even suggested changes to it.
In a 2015 paper examining the subject. Omphemetse Sibanda of the University of South Africa said: “The asymmetry that exists as regards developed countries and least developed countries in terms of the levels of development reveals some inefficiencies of the application of special and differential treatment regime. The current special and differential treatment system needs to be revised”.
With Barbados and other Caribbean states importing a lot of what they use, in a climate of challenged economies, regional representatives think there is still a need for special and differential treatment for the Caribbean.
Addressing last month’s WTO ministerial meeting in Kenya on behalf of CARICOM, Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator A.J. Nicholson said: “We recognise that it may be necessary to discuss…appropriate ways in which we can address the issues in the Doha Agenda, in order to achieve successful outcomes.”
“In this effort, it is vital that we preserve and secure the progress achieved over the past years, particularly those contained in our ministerial decisions and negotiating texts which relate to special and differential treatment, less than full reciprocity, special measures and flexibilities for small and vulnerable economies and least developed countries”.
In a communique issued regarding the recent WTO ministerial conference in Kenya, the ACP grouping of which Barbados and other CARICOM countries are members, said there was a need for “key decisions” on issues including special and differential treatment proposals.