Behind the scenes at Aid for Trade (en)
Matthew Wilson: You have been one of the most constant faces of the Aid for Trade initiative since it was launched in 2005. How did it all start?
MICHAEL ROBERTS: I may be a familiar face but I was actually not involved in the launch of the initiative. At that time I was leading the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), which coincidentally is an example of Aid for Trade in action through its work on implementing international sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards.
At the inception of Aid for Trade, the initiative sought to address the issue of market- access opportunities for firms, particularly those from least developed countries (LDCs). From a political perspective, it was important that in the discussions on trade liberalization, the supply-side constraints and trade-related infrastructure shortcomings, which plagued many developing countries, were also given due weight and attention alongside the Doha Development Agenda negotiations.
MW: Why do you think there is still a need to shine this spotlight on Aid for Trade?
MR: LDCs still account for just over 1% of global trade. Even though the value and volume of global trade has risen there is still a tremendous amount to do for LDCs and other countries that face geographic and sector-specific constraints.
One key insight from the 2015 Global Review was that trade costs remain high in the agriculture sector, in part as a result of the perishable nature of products being traded but also as a result of the compliance costs. And I appreciate that the International Trade Centre (ITC) in particular helps these countries and their small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) address such constraints.
And of course the trade and development community now has a detailed framework and a set of Goals to aim at in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
MW: How does Aid for Trade fit into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?
MR: Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda there is no specific goal for trade. Still, trade underpins the achievement of most of the SDGs, and especially Goal 9 – industry, innovation and infrastructure – in which there is a clear trade-related component.
MW: The Global Reviews on Aid for Trade have morphed from a small committee discussion to a ‘must-attend’ event for trade and development experts. How did this happen?
MR: This has been immensely satisfying. Development initiatives can sometimes be short lived but Aid for Trade has proven to be durable and has grown in relevance over the past decade. With the 2030 Agenda now in place there is every reason to hope that the Aid for Trade Global Review will remain not just prominent, but will continue to increase in relevance and impact.
MW: Any insight into any innovative changes we can expect at this year’s event?
MR: Thematically one change is of emphasis and that is gender. Women’s empowerment issues have steadily increased in profile over the past five years and this year’s review will put further focus on this. And not just as a topic in dedicated sessions, but as a cross-cutting theme running through the event. There will also be innovation in the format of the event, with the aim of making the sessions more appealing and interactive.
MW: One of the key elements of Aid for Trade has been partnerships. Tell us a bit more about that.
MR: One misconception about the initiative is that it is the WTO that spends the US$50 billion dollars committed by development partners on Aid for Trade. The WTO is active in development cooperation but the work on Aid for Trade is based on partnerships. Those partnerships cut across the different regions through the regional development banks, UN agencies and United Nations regional economic commissions. They also cover financing issues and thematic issues such as trade facilitation.
Another satisfying aspect of the evolution of the initiative has been the growth of these partnerships, based on the core relationship on the monitoring exercise with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
MW: How do you ensure that Aid for Trade retains an agenda with country ownership and is not just another ‘Geneva event?’
MR: The core work of the Global Review is to see how trade is mainstreamed at national and regional levels. For this, efforts are made to ensure that the trade agenda is owned by stakeholders at these levels. The 2030 Agenda adds another dimension in ensuring that trade mainstreaming is fully owned by those affected, for example, by policies. Evidence of the buyin is the continued engagement of developing countries, and in particular LDCs, in this monitoring and evaluation exercise. For this year’s review we received more than 110 questionnaire responses from the development community and over 150 case stories.
MW: For years there have been calls to move from Aid for Trade to Investment for Trade. What are your views on that?
MR: First, Members decide and not the WTO Secretariat. Second, investmentclimate reforms are already tracked as part of the work on Aid for Trade, so past monitoring exercises demonstrated examples of investment-climate reforms that had been submitted by developing countries and their development partners. There is an increasing focus among the multilateral development banks as to how to leverage their resources to attract private capital. A good example of this is the ‘millions to trillions’ approach being developed by the World Bank and partners.
MW: What does it take to plan an event like the Global Review?
MR: A minimum of 12 months of planning to ensure that the monitoring exercise, the publication and the actual review are all successfully pulled together with multiple deadlines, the inevitable crises and finding solutions. It requires a lot of hard work, but also gives a profound sense of satisfaction.
MW: The accompanying ‘Aid for Trade at a Glance’ publication has developed into the equivalent of a door stop. Tell us about the evolution of the publication?
MR: ‘Aid for Trade at a Glance’ has evolved from 84 pages in its first edition in 2007 to close to 300 in its last edition. The expansion of the publication reflects the partnerships that undermine the review exercise. Having first issued the report with OECD as our publishing partner, we have expanded the collaboration to include contributions from a range of other organizations.
This year’s edition include the Enhanced Integrated Framework, ITC, the International Telecommunications Union, the World Bank Group and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The breadth and depth of analysis reflects the quality of the monitoring information submitted and the expertise of the different author institutions. And the focus on social media this year aims to compress the information into a digestible form for a broader audience.
I’ve been extremely lucky with the support from colleagues and the WTO’s development division, but also with the political emphasis placed on the initiative by successive directors-general, in particular Roberto Azevêdo, the current director-general.