The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is the body through which governments and businesses (mainly TNCs) negotiate the rules of trade, and settle trade disputes once these rules have been established.
The concept of the WTO first began with the 1947 the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed by the Western powers to govern global trade and to reduce trade barriers between nations. In 1994, the WTO was set up to replace GATT, originally consisting of 126 members; it has since expanded to 164 member states currently.
The WTO now has trade rules in place covering not only goods but also services such as telecommunications, banking and investment, transport, education, health and the environment.
The WTO is committed to the concept of free trade, believing that unlimited competition in the free market results in efficient production, innovation, cheap prices and the fastest possible rates of economic growth. They see government interference in markets as stifling businesses and being harmful to economic growth. WTO trade agreements and trade rules have thus tended to focus on reducing government intervention, such as the reduction of tariffs, subsidies and restrictions on imports.
However, critics argue that the WTO has hidden goals, and that it is really interested in helping rich countries and TNCs maintain their economic dominance. Chang (2010) for example has criticized the World Trade Organisation, arguing that its trade rules are unfair, and biased against developing countries. The WTO pressurizes poor countries to open up their economies immediately to western corporations and banks by abandoning tariffs (taxes) on western imports. However, the developed countries are still allowed to impose quotas on the imports of manufactured goods from poor countries, in order to protect their manufacturing industries.
Along the same lines as Chang above, McKay argues that WTO trade rules have rigged the terms of global trade in favour of the West and consequently the WTO is a rich man’s club dominated by the neo-liberal philosophy of the developed, industrialised nations.
A second major criticism of the WTO is that it is notoriously undemocratic – decision making at the WTO is dominated by a small group of Western members, with representatives of developing countries being outnumbered by the representativeness of wealthier countries and TNCS, even though the majority of the world’s population lives in those poorer countries. A consequence of this is that the WTO tends to see free-trade as more important than protecting workers rights or the environment.
This brief article from Forbes suggests various reasons why poor countries fail to get decent trade deals out of the WTO:
–They are seriously understaffed–at the extreme, some states have no permanent delegation in Geneva, or just one or two people who must also cover other international agencies in the city.
–Their experience of trade policy issues and multilateral negotiations is limited.
–Individually, and even collectively, few account for a significant share of any element in world trade.
Philippe Legrain (2002), former special advisor to the Director-General of the WTO has acknowledged four main criticisms of the WTO:
- It does the bidding of TNCs
- It undermines workers’ rights and environmental protection by encouraging a ‘race to the bottom’ between governments of developing countries competing for jobs and foreign investment.
- It harms the poor
- It destroys democracy by imposing its approach on the world secretly and without accountability. He argues that the WTO’s free trade rules have prioritised the interests of TNCs over democratic and human rights.
Further sources of criticisms
- Profit over Planet – WTO ruling against India subsidizing solar farms (suggests this is being done in the interests of US oil companies??)
- This Guardian article (2011) outlines 10 ways in which WTO is failing developing countries.
- Popular Resistance (2014) Deepening TNCs gains from the WTO.
- The Global Issues Blog – outlines some of the problems of the WTO
- The International Peasants Movement – again more criticisms of WTO policies
Chapman et al (2016) – A Level Sociology Student Book Two [Fourth Edition] Collins.