Trade Policy at Work

The WTO Doha Development Round: From Doha in 2001 to Nur Sultan in 2020

The study discusses the twenty years old negotiation process in the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Work Programme. After outlining the original intention, it discusses the current state of play of the DDA while examining the reasons behind the impasse. It also reflects on how the 2017 joint initiatives, in the areas of electronic commerce, investment facilitation and MSMEs, represent a shift of focus from issues of interest to developing countries to other ‘new issues’ lower on their priorities.

The World Trade Organisation Doha Work Programme adopted at the 4th WTO Ministerial Conference in November 2001 captured Members’ commitment to place the needs and interests of developing countries at the heart of the work programme to ensure that developing countries secure a share in the growth of world trade. However, almost twenty years on, agreement cannot be found in the Work Programme negotiations, as the focus has now shifted from issues of interest to developing countries to other issues, including so-called ‘new issues’, arguably of little relevance to the development of developing countries.

The negotiations are in a state of impasse. Several reasons explain this situation, and include the lack of political will on the part of some Members to find the needed solutions. The current large number of WTO Members makes it difficult to find solutions that fit each’s differing levels of development, and differing levels of interest. The WTO approach of adopting decisions by consensus is also a contributing fact, as is disagreement on the issue of special and differential treatment for developing countries. Although Members continue to conduct negotiations in different formats, it is clear that no amount of technical work will be able to unlock the impasse.

Against this background, groups of a mix of developed and developing country WTO Members announced at the 2017 11th WTO Ministerial Conference joint initiatives in the areas of electronic commerce, investment facilitation and micro, small and medium size enterprises. A large number of WTO Members are now occupied with these joint initiatives, which are likely to gain traction amongst the rest of the membership.

The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference will be held in about six months, with very little expectation of positive outcomes. With little movement on the DDA Work Programme, the issues taken up in the joint initiatives are likely to fill the vacuum in the run-up to, and at, MC12.

The upcoming 12th Ministerial Conference seems the right opportunity, almost twenty years after Doha, for Members to accept that they have failed to reach agreement on the Doha Work Programme and to consider committing themselves to reviewing each of the remaining issues on the agenda with a view to determining which ones could be retired, and which ones hold hope for reaching agreement