Trade policy processes: is there space for civil society participation?

When civil society actors attempt to participate in the trade arena they often find that they are confronted with technical complexity, structural inequality and powerful pre-set agendas. Despite these obstacles, new pro-poor alliances are being created around trade policy which offer some cause for optimism.

When civil society actors attempt to participate in the trade arena they often find that they are confronted with technical complexity, structural inequality and powerful pre-set agendas. Despite these obstacles, new pro-poor alliances are being created around trade policy which offer some cause for optimism.

Research by Karen Brock and Rosemary McGee analyses factors that affect civil society participation in trade policy processes. The research analyses World Trade Organisation (WTO) and recent ministerial trade agreements such as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement and examines the promotion of trade liberalisation by the donor community. In particular, the paper examines the experiences and perceptions of two sets of civil society actors promoting pro-poor agendas: UK non governmental organisations (NGOs), and civil society organisations (CSOs) in Kenya and Uganda.

The research notes the convergence of international financial institutions (IFIs ” the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) agendas with the WTO. This reinforces economic liberalisation at the national and international levels. Furthermore, donor 'coordination and convergence' agendas mean that bilateral donors are increasingly as geared towards trade liberalisation as the multilaterals. With this ideology so firmly pre-set it is hardly surprising that trade 'capacity-building' efforts are often perceived as manipulative efforts to enforce the dominant agenda. The research finds that:

  • Trade policy processes involve a series of complex arenas or spaces, each with its own rules and culture. What happens in one space may often undermine what is agreed in another.
  • The sheer scale of trade information in the era of the internet is huge. But in key areas there is an absence of information, and lack of transparency about what is going on. This means less accountability.
  • Capacity building efforts – the Integrated Framework of the World Bank, IMF and others – are often biased in favour of dominant neo-liberal approach to trade, as if this were the only option.
  • International NGOs have been an important source of alternative knowledge and practice, particularly in relation to the WTO.
  • Opportunities for civil society participation in trade policy processes are significantly different from poverty policy processes. At the national level there are differences between Kenya and Uganda, reflecting political culture.
  • African CSOs in the trade arena are diverse. Many have strong links to international NGOs. But direct links between civil society and the grassroots are not as well-defined in trade as in other areas.

Participation in the trade arena is not easy. Coordination, resources to engage and transparency are all important issues. This research suggests that there are several things that policy-makers ” both North and South – could address. These include:

  • Thinking about trade and development in an integrated way: making sure what happens in one space doesn't undermine another.
  • Tackling the non-level playing field of trade negotiations by strengthening alliances – between government and civil society, and between neighbouring countries.
  • Developing alternatives to trade-liberalisation narratives. 'Knowledge generation' and capacity building for participation in trade processes should enable people to critique dominant framing assumptions in the trade arena, not simply to participate uncritically.
  • Acting to improve transparency. Making clear the hidden power, bribes and threats that undermine attempts to create accountable and open trade policy-making.

Poverty reduction processes are often criticised as ineffective because they take little account of power and economic realities. Engaging with trade policy is one way of responding to this. Development policy moves away from an exclusive concern with poor people, and begins to include the rich, and the wider processes that create poverty. Such a shift inevitably challenges power relations, and this means effective civil society participation is perhaps more difficult than in other areas.

Contributor(s): Karen Brock and Rosemary McGee

Source(s):
'At the interface of trade and development: situating civil society participation in trade policy processes', IDS Working Paper, IDS, Brighton, by K. Brock and R. McGee, 2004

Funded by: Commissioned by the Participation Group at the Institute of Development Studies as part of the programme ‘Participation, Power and Change', funded by DFID, SDC and SIDA

id21 Research Highlight: 5 May 2004

Further Information:
Karen Brock

Email: k.brock@in4action.com

Rosemary McGee

Email: participation@ids.ac.uk

Institute of Development Studies (IDS), UK

Other related links:
'Regulating for Development'

'Development of the trade policy in sub-Saharan Africa: the role of civil society'

International Centre for Trade and Development

'Civil Society and the World Trade Organization'

Trade, Development and Capacity Building – Information from the OECD

'Plan of Action – Just trade agreements?'

Fonte:http://www.id21.org/society/s7bkb2g1. html

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