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The possibilities for and limits of civil society engagement with the WTO

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has often been perceived as suffering from a democratic deficit, while also working against the interests of both the environment and the World’s poor. What are the possibilities for civil society engagement with the WTO?

Photo Credit: http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/wto-battle-seattle/

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been described as a ‘club’ where trade representatives from member nations come together to thrash out agreements behind closed doors (Keohane & Nye, 2001: 277); agreements which often impact negatively upon the environment and the World’s poor (Ayres, 2003: 96). This post investigates the possibilities for and limits of civil society engagement with the WTO, with ‘civil society’ viewed as a force which can serve to represent marginalised interests and produce progressive transformations in the multilateral trade regime.

This post argues that while the WTO has reformed its institutions to allow civil society to participate in its decision-making and dispute settlement operations, civil society remains on the sidelines, with substantive formal engagement with the WTO blocked. In the face of demonstrations and opposition, the WTO has created a situation in which civil society organisations appear to have access to, but in reality, have little say in the trade regime. Further, the WTO has focused its interactions on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs); large, professionalised organisations which, as a result of external pressures, as well as interactions with the WTO, do not necessarily seek to critique and transform the trade regime, but have come to broadly support its neoliberal agenda. Similarly, civil society representation at the WTO is highly skewed, with NGOs and business associations from the global north dominating while grassroots organisations are silenced, further eliminating critical perspectives from the agenda. Indeed, while reforms to the WTO have been suggested, its members remain committed to its intergovernmental character. Resultantly, the only way civil society can hope to make substantive change in the WTO is by building partnerships with member countries or by lobbying national delegates; this has been successful in some cases but is limited to those civil society organisations that have sufficient technical expertise and those who can compete against corporations in shaping the negotiating positions of WTO members.

The WTO and Civil Society

Born out of the 1994 Uruguay Round, the WTO is the organisation responsible for helping trade flow as freely as possible, promoting trade liberalisation in the pursuit of economic development and well-being (WTO, 2019a). This international organisation is intergovernmental in nature and has been theorised as a club-like system in which ministers, particularly of the rich, industrialised nations, come together in order to make rules on how international trade is to be managed and facilitated (Keohane & Nye, 2001: 265). The WTO carries out three key roles in facilitating the multilateral trading system. First, it acts as a negotiating forum in which member states meet to deliberate and agree upon new trade agreements, with the bi-annual Ministerial Conferences acting as the highest decision-making body in the WTO (Williams, 2011: 108). As a platform for negotiation, the WTO appears to have been highly successful, slashing average applied tariffs in half between 1995 and 2014 (WTO, 2015: 7) while also raising living standards and providing political stability (Loy, 2001: 114). The WTO has also expanded the multilateral trade regime to include the issues of trade in services, intellectual property rights, and Investment measures, through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS).

Further, the WTO sets out the legal framework for international trade, providing rules and principles to guide states’ behaviour (Williams, 2011: 108). Here, committees and councils serve as watchdogs to ensure that members are implementing agreements and meeting their legal requirements (WTO, 2019b). Finally, the WTO, through its Dispute Settlement Mechanism (DSM), acts as an arena where members can resolve their trade disputes (Williams, 2011: 108). Indeed, the WTO is unique as an international organisation as its rules are binding and those found guilty of failing to meet agreements by WTO panels or the Appellate Body can be hit with a wide range of trade sanctions (Smith & Moran, 2000: 67). The DSM has been relatively successful, adjudicating on over 450 disputes since 1995 (Hoekman, 2014: 552) and preventing disputes from escalating into conflicts that could dissolve the multilateral trading regime (Ethier, 2004: 452).

Despite these positive assessments of the WTO, many remain critical of the organisation. Firstly, the WTO is viewed as suffering from a democratic deficit and a lack of transparency (Piewitt, 2010: 470; Steffek & Ehling, 2008: 95). Here, the club model described by Keohane and Nye (2001) leads to a situation in which trade officials and politicians, who have no direct tie to constituents in their domestic countries, negotiate trade deals in secret. Indeed, many states are also excluded, with informal discussions held between the leading nations in the ‘green room’ (Perez-Esteve, 2012: 6). As such, officials concerned with other issue areas, as well as the general public of member states, are excluded from WTO processes, preventing them from having their voices heard or being able to hold politicians to account (Keohane & Nye, 2001: 266). These critiques are also aimed at the DSM, where it is argued that panels of unelected experts are able to override the laws, policies, and programs adopted by democratically elected legislatures (Clarke, 2000: 10; Robertson, 2000: 1122), forcing states to adopt policies and creating questions over the legitimacy of the WTO (Piewitt, 2010: 467).

Further, the WTO has been described as a ‘star chamber for the global capitalists’, operating against the interests of developing countries, working people and the environment. (Cockburn & St. Clair, 2000: 7). From this perspective, the WTO is dominated by corporate lobbyists and multinational firms, meaning that the organisation forwards private interests while neglecting issues of labour standards, environmental degradation and human health (Hoekman & Kostecki, 2001: 470). Such a dynamic is evident in the TRIPS agreement, which was drafted by 13 leading US corporations and is designed to secure corporations’ claims to intellectual property (Clarke, 2000: 10). This agreement has proved to be highly profitable for corporations, ensuring monopoly control over products (Smith & Moran, 2000: 67). Yet, the agreement has also impacted negatively on human health, for example preventing South Africa from making AIDS medication available and affordable for its citizens (Ibid). Indeed, TRIPS has impacted upon many areas including the environment, preventing climate-change-related technologies from being transferred to developing countries (Littleton, 2009: 242). More generally, the current multilateral trade regime works against the interests of developing countries, liberalising trade in services and forcing down tariffs in goods while allowing the rich nations to maintain high tariffs in areas such as agriculture (Clapp, 2006: 563). Again, these issues reflect the fact that the WTO faces questions of accountability and legitimacy, since the multilateral trading regime is working to the disadvantage of many around the world.

In response to these issues, many scholars have called for increased civil society engagement with the WTO (Charnovitz 1996; Esty 2002; Shell 1996). From these perspectives, civil society organisations can act to alleviate the democratic deficit of the WTO by ‘bridging the gap between trade negotiators and the affected people’ (Piewitt, 2010: 467) as well as expanding the agenda and bringing to light neglected issues such as environmental damage (Hannah et al, 2017: 429; Nanz & Steffek, 2004: 333). As such, the inclusion of civil society organisations can act to bring a wider range of perspectives into consideration, thus improving the outcomes of trade negotiations and building a governance regime which serves to improve the lives of the many, not the few. Thus, civil society is viewed as a transformative force; a distinct social sphere which serves to ‘critique and shape governance’ (Hopewell, 2015: 1131).

Indeed, the term ‘civil society’ is contested. In many instances, civil society organisations are equated with NGOs for convenience (Hannah et al, 2017: 430). Yet, Ayres (2003: 86) highlights the need to expand beyond an NGO-centric approach to include the myriad of civil society groups that seek to engage with the WTO. As such, the term ‘civil society’ is understood not just as NGOs but as a wide range of actors including academics, trade unions, grassroots movements, and consumer organisations. These groups can be broadly divided into 3 categories; conformists, reformists, and rejectionists (Williams, 2011: 112). Conformists are civil society actors who are largely supportive of the WTO regime, including business associations and think tanks such as the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Wilkinson, 2005: 162). Reformist civil society organisations are often professionally run entities which seek to engage directly with international organisations, gaining access and attempting to achieve change from within (Ayres, 2003: 93); this includes NGOs such as Oxfam. Finally, Rejectionist groups are fundamentally opposed to the current multilateral trade regime, and the capitalist system more generally, seeking to abolish organisations such as the WTO; these are usually more grassroots movements (Ayres, 2003: 94) and include bodies such as the Third World Network. Yet, these groupings are not always clear-cut, with some organisations occupying the gap between engagement and reformation for example (Wilkinson, 2005: 162).

Conversely, intergovernmental perspectives suggest that there is no space for civil society to participate in the WTO, with the organisation only accountable to its member states (Williams, 2011: 110). As such, civil society should filter its concerns through national governments, who then represent these concerns at the WTO. However, this rests on the assumption that national governments are representative of their constituents’ interests; in many instances, this is not the case and people feel that their concerns are better represented by civil society organisations (Loy, 2000: 119). Further, the filtering of interests through national governments would exclude civil society organisations from countries that are not represented at the WTO, as well as international NGOs that are not represented by a single sovereign state (Charnovitz, 1996: 352). Indeed, Keohane and Nye (2001: 290) argue that it is in the interests of the WTO to allow for some form of civil society representation in its system in order to maintain legitimacy. As such, the following sections consider the possibilities for and limits to civil society engagement with the WTO.

Engagement with the WTO

In comparison to the GATT, the WTO allows for much greater engagement with civil society. Under the GATT, it was a widely held view that issues of international trade should be subject to technocratic decision-making by experts (Steffek & Ehling, 2008: 96). As such, the GATT only interacted with the International Chamber of Commerce as an advisory partner (Piewitt, 2010: 467), developing no formal arrangements for engagement with civil society organisations (Steffek & Ehling, 2008: 96). Conversely, the WTO set out the ways in which it was to engage with civil society in the Marrakesh Agreement and the ‘1996 Guidelines’. These guidelines acknowledge ‘the need for greater involvement of civil society in the trading system’ (Hoekman & Kostecki, 2001: 470) and state that both the General Council and the Secretariat should engage more with NGOs that are concerned with issues related to those of the WTO (Steffek & Ehling, 2008: 97). Yet, two qualifications arise immediately. First, the WTO’s guidelines equate civil society with NGOs, thus excluding ‘a broader, more inclusive and representative spectrum of public opinion’ (Wilkinson, 2005: 163). Further, the guidelines explicitly state that NGOs are not to be directly involved in WTO meetings or decision-making (WTO, 1996) thus setting out clear boundaries as to how far civil society can engage with the WTO.

With these guidelines in mind, numerous avenues were opened for NGOs to engage with the WTO. Starting with the 1996 Singapore meeting, it was decided that NGOs would be invited to take part in the Ministerial Conferences, with the attendance of these organisations now an established practice (Van den Bossche, 2006: 10-11). At the same time, the WTO has created systems to de-restrict and circulate many WTO materials, thus improving transparency (Williams, 2011: 114). Further, the WTO has made significant improvements to its website, creating a special NGO page which holds information on all ‘NGO-related WTO activities’ and ‘publishes monthly lists of position papers’ (Van den Bossche, 2006: 14), allowing NGOs to promote their views on trade-related topics (WTO, 2019c). This allows NGOs to communicate with the WTO and share the information they hold on specific issues. Additionally, NGOs are also able to engage with the WTO through informal meetings, symposia, and briefings in which NGOs can keep up to date on WTO activities and share their views on issues such as the environment (Perez-Esteve, 2012: 13).

Further, NGOs have been granted space to engage with the DSM. Here, the 1998 Turtle-Shrimp dispute between India et al and the US was a landmark case, with the ruling that dispute panels and the Appellate Body could accept Amicus Curiae briefs from NGOs (Howse, 2003: 498; Robertson, 2000: 1129). As such, NGOs are able to submit these briefs to dispute panels, providing civil society with a voice when salient cases arise and allowing them to contribute additional information and legal interpretations to hearings (Hannah et al, 2018: 121). Since 1998 over 98 amicus submissions have been made, representing a broad range of actors from across the world (Squatrito, 2018: 70) as NGOs have tried to make their points heard on a broad range of issues. Thus, many avenues appear to have opened through which NGOs can actively engage with the WTO, improving the transparency, accountability and effectiveness of the organisation.

Despite the improvements made by the WTO, many civil society actors remained hostile towards the organisation. A series of high-profile protests culminated in the 1999 ‘Battle of Seattle’. In this highly publicised demonstration, a broad range of groups, including both reformists and rejectionists representing interests stretching from labour standards to the environment, came together to demand change from the WTO and take power away from the corporations (Epstein, 2001: 53-54). For many of those engaged in the protest, democratising globalisation was the key objective; they wanted to obtain a voice for citizens and developing countries within the multilateral trade regime while also demanding that the powerful be held to account (Kaldor, 2000: 113). As such, civil society demanded to ‘have more direct access to the arena where their interests were being affected’ (Keohane & Nye, 2001: 270) with the insistence that ‘labour and environmental issues should be incorporated into the trade agreements’ (Kaldor, 2000: 112).

In many ways, the protests in Seattle were judged as a success and this demonstrates the ways in which civil society can engage with the WTO from the outside. Most notably, the protests played a role in the collapse of the ministerial meeting in Seattle, forcing the WTO into a position where it would need to placate both developing country members and civil society in order to make progress in liberalising trade (Wilkinson, 2005: 157). Yet, the protests also played an important role in opening up the debate by expanding citizen’s literacy on how the WTO affects their lives, and demonstrating what could be achieved by harnessing civil dissatisfaction (Smith & Moran, 2000: 66; Wilkinson, 2005: 156). As such, civil society was successful in empowering the people and placing their issues on the global political agenda (Cockburn & St Clair, 2000: 1).

Yet, protests such as those seen in Seattle are limited in what they can achieve and play only a part in building political movements and campaigns (Cockburn & St Clair, 2000: 9). Indeed, despite protests at Cancun and Tokyo, demonstrations against the WTO have largely disappeared (Hannah et al, 2017: 431). In many cases, NGOs now oppose such disruptive action, instead acting as devices ‘for the containment of political dissent’ (Ayres, 2003: 92). Further, the locations of Ministerial Conferences have also impeded protests by civil society, with locations such as Doha preventing such action due to its ‘relative isolation and its intolerance of public demonstration’ (Wilkinson, 2005: 170). Indeed, while protest against the WTO empowered civil society to envisage a new world, attempts to create radically new systems have largely failed. An important case here is the World Social Forum (WSF) project which brings together civil society organisations that are opposed to the ‘ultra-liberal policies’ of the WTO (Rahmani, 2015). While the WSF sets out its mission as one of finding a new world, it has failed to outline what a new world would look like (Patomäki & Teivainen, 2005: 145) and thus remains on the sidelines.

The protests against the WTO did, however, generate pressure on the organisation to further reform how it engages with civil society. Most notably, the WTO created the annual Public Forum in which a broad range of actors, including NGOs, businesses and governments, come together to engage in a dialogue about current issues (Hannah et al, 2017: 120). The Public Forum covers many issues, with past forums focusing on the sustainability of trade and exploring how trade affects people’s daily lives (WTO, 2019d). Further, Director-General Panitchpakdi set up the informal NGO advisory group in which NGOs are invited to an annual meeting to discuss issues and provide feedback to the Director-General. As such, the scope for NGO engagement with the WTO has expanded. Indeed, the transparency of WTO operations has also improved post-Seattle, with many dispute settlement hearings now made publicly available to watch (Stephens, 2013). The efforts to reform the WTO have been viewed as a success, with Director-General Mike Moore stating that the organisation has made ‘real progress in…efforts to enhance the WTO's image and engage civil society' (Williams, 2011: 105).

Limits to Engagement

The preceding analysis suggested that civil society organisations, specifically NGOs, are able to engage with the WTO in numerous ways. Yet, a closer reading illuminates the fact that civil society remains on the sidelines of the multilateral trade regime (Steffek & Ehling, 2008: 96). While NGOs have been invited to attend Ministerial Conferences, they must demonstrate that they are concerned with matters related to the WTO and are subject to an accreditation system which is ‘basically left to the discretion of the WTO Secretariat’ (Van den Bossche, 2006: 21). Indeed, in the case of the 2005 Tokyo Ministerial Conference, over 500 applicants were refused accreditation, with groups such as research institutions and student bodies refused access (Ibid). For those organisations granted accreditation, they are only able to attend the plenary meetings in which member states engage in general rhetoric, while NGOs are prevented from making any statements (Williams, 2011: 117). As such, NGOs are excluded from formal negotiations and decision-making. Meaningful engagement by NGOs at the Public Forum is also constrained, with the platform serving simply as an arena for networking and information sharing rather than for ‘contestation or critical dialogue’ (Hannah et al, 2018: 141). The marginalisation of civil society is also evident in terms of the DSM, where the acceptance of Amicus Curiae briefs remains at the discretion of the dispute panels. In practice, these submissions face many political and legal constraints, meaning that only in exceptional cases are they accepted and in many circumstances are never taken into consideration (Squatrito, 2018).

As such, the reforms made since the creation of the WTO, and in the aftermath of Seattle, have made little progress in allowing civil society to engage with the multilateral trade regime. Hannah et al (2017: 429) argue that the WTO’s current attempts to engage with civil society are focused upon building public relations, with the reforms discussed previously serving merely as an instrument to ‘underscore the existence and value of the WTO…at a time when its purpose had been called into question’. Resultantly, NGOs have been locked into a form of engagement in which they are prevented from participating in meaningful dialogue with the WTO and are unable to achieve progressive reforms. Rather, the current guidelines serve to maintain the power of the WTO (Wilkinson, 2005: 157), with meetings, forums and information sharing platforms designed to educate civil society on the benefits of trade and to celebrate the WTO’s policies (Hannah et al, 2017: 436).

Yet, the limits to civil society engagement with the WTO run much deeper than being excluded from the formal decision-making and dispute settlement systems; the idea that civil society organisations can cure the democratic deficit and provide a voice for the underrepresented is limited in numerous ways. Firstly, as briefly mentioned in the previous section, the WTO has chosen to equate civil society with NGOs, thus preventing many civil society groups, including localised grassroots movements, from being able to formally engage with the organisation and have their voices heard (Scholte, 2004: 154). In this sense, elites sought to alleviate threats to the liberal trade regime by ‘incorporating popular actors into the political process’ in order to demobilise ‘discourses that threatened dominant interests and agendas’ (Smith, 2015: 612), such as those that were present in Seattle.

But even a focus on NGOs demonstrates that representation is highly skewed. NGOs based in Europe and America find it much easier to gain access to platforms such as the Ministerial Conference than those NGOs from the global south who often lack resources (Williams, 2011: 116). While the location of Ministerial Conferences in the global south helps to reduce the north-south divide in terms of representation (Piewitt, 2010: 458), this is only effective to a point. The result is a situation in which the agendas of northern NGOs increasingly dominate while those of the south are absent (Wallace, 2003: 216).

Further, the WTO has increasingly been dominated by business interests. In terms of the Ministerial Conferences, business representation has increased year on year, with the 2005 conference hosting 354 business associations in comparison to 269 NGOs (Piewitt, 2010: 480). This is also the case in terms of working paper submissions, where, between 2005 and 2007, 56% of papers were submitted by business associations while only 30% were submitted by NGOs (Piewitt, 2010: 482). The Public Forum has also witnessed a shift from NGOs to economic interests, with business associations and corporations now dominating the platform (Hannah et al, 2017: 432). Resultantly, critical voices are mostly excluded from the WTO; platforms such as the Public Forum are increasingly dominated by non-civil society actors who broadly support the WTO’s actions, while agents who seek to challenge the orthodoxy and critique WTO policies are poorly represented (Hannah et al, 2017: 435).

More critically, the idea that NGOs act as autonomous entities which represent marginalised interests and transform organisations such as the WTO should be scrutinised. Hopewell (2015) demonstrates that in many cases, NGOs that have sought to engage with the WTO have been transformed in the process. Here, NGOs, in order to gain access to the WTO, are forced to build social capital by demonstrating their technical expertise, cultivating relationships with trade representatives and speaking the ‘language’ of the organisation (Hopewell, 2015: 1138-1143; Tucker, 2014: 392; Williams, 1999: 322). Those groups that attempt to forward their views in ways that are deemed ‘overly challenging or emotional’ are perceived as ‘unreasonable and unqualified to participate in serious dialogue with the WTO’ (Tucker, 2014: 395). Thus, NGOs are expected to think and act in a way that conforms to the culture of the WTO and the liberal trading regime, while non-conforming voices are silenced.

Yet, it is not only the effect of engaging with the WTO that has served to manipulate the behaviour of NGOs. In many cases, NGOs are reliant upon large donations from European governments and the European Union (Robertson, 2000: 1123), with these donors pushing them to follow certain agendas (Wallace, 2003: 204). Similarly, there is increasing pressure put on NGOs to become more professional, with these organisations turning their back on contentious action (Ayres, 2003: 91) and taking on formal structures, often managed by elites who are far removed from those whom they seek to represent (Pant, 2017). As a result of these pressures, NGOs may no longer offer a legitimate bottom-up approach in which they represent marginalised interests and inject new ideas into the WTO (Marchetti, 2015: 764; Wallace, 2003: 203). Rather, they may come to support existing systems and carry forward its dominant values (Morris-Suzuki, 2000: 68; Wallace, 2003: 203).

Indeed, as a result of the pressure on NGOs to build social capital, attract funding and become more professional, many have lost their critical aspect (Hannah et al, 2018: 140). This is evident in the case of Oxfam; one of the World’s largest NGOs which is highly reliant on funding from the European Union and has close ties to the UK government (Middleton, 2006). After a period of campaigning against WTO authority and a new round of trade negotiations, Oxfam came to support ‘agricultural trade liberalization in rich countries as a key means of fostering poverty reduction and development’ (Hopewell, 2015: 1145). This demonstrates how a large NGO, initially focused on criticising and transforming the WTO, has come to broadly support the organisation and its neoliberal agenda. This brings into question whether NGOs that engage with the WTO can perform the functions of giving a voice to the underrepresented and transforming the WTO into a fairer system for citizens around the world.

Scope for Engagement?

In light of the limited scope that civil society has to engage with the WTO, there have been demands by academics and politicians for further reform. In 1998, President Clinton called for the creation of a consultative forum which would enable civil society groups to ‘provide regular and continuous input to help to guide further evolution of the WTO’ (Robertson, 2000: 1120). Charnovitz (1996: 349) has argued that the DSM should be expanded so that civil society actors can invoke the dispute process and bring cases against members. Providing greater scope for civil society engagement with the WTO is likely to improve the functioning of the WTO by expanding debates and providing the expertise and resources that member states often lack (Van den Bossche, 2006: 5-6). These reforms would see the WTO become more like organisations such as the United Nations where civil society organisations are formally included in decision-making processes (Marchetti, 2015: 762).

Yet, there are many arguments against such reforms. Allowing civil society to engage in the decision-making and negotiating functions of the WTO could lead to severe delays, with more participants representing a broader range of interests making it harder to reach a consensus (Nichols, 1996: 864; Keohane & Nye, 2001: 289). Similarly, there are fears that special interests may take over the negotiating process (Van den Bossche, 2006: 6), leading to an increase in protectionism and the slowing down of trade liberalisation. Perhaps the fiercest opposition has come from developing nations, with the environmental agenda of civil society groups from the global north acting as a potential barrier to their development agenda (Loy, 2000: 124) and the fear that NGOs from industrialised nations ‘could exert extraordinary influence over panel deliberations if given greater access’ (Loy, 2000: 130). However, notwithstanding these antagonisms, Williams (2011: 116) argues that civil society engagement with the WTO could be managed to ensure that it did not impede the efficiency or legitimacy of the organisation.

Yet, the core issue remains that the majority of members are committed to the intergovernmental character of the WTO (Henderson, 2002: 285; Steffek & Kissling, 2006: 25), with the organisation having done as much as it possibly could within the ‘confines of its current mandate’ (Perez-Esteve, 2012: 3). However, scope exists for civil society to engage with the WTO through national governments. Here, civil society groups have built partnerships with national governments, particularly in the developing world, providing expertise and empowering negotiators in order to achieve positive changes in WTO policy (Hannah, 2014: 467). This was evident in the case of Médecins Sans Frontières who, in partnership with nations such as India, were successful in amending the TRIPS agreement and securing life-sustaining medicines for the developing world (MSF, 2001; Perez-Esteve, 2012: 17). Similarly, civil society organisations have been influential in the DSM, with member states calling on NGOs for assistance in writing briefs (Perez-Esteve, 2012: 3), while also selecting representatives of civil society to be part of their delegations (Van den Bossche, 2006: 18). However, this means that civil society organisations are at the mercy of national governments, and must have attained a certain level of expertise if they are to engage substantively with the WTO (Perez-Esteve, 2012: 25).

Similarly, civil society groups can forward their agendas and influence WTO policy making by lobbying national delegations (Nichols, 1996: 869; Perez-Esteve, 2012: 25). Here, large NGOs such as the World Wildlife Foundation wield significant amounts of power over national governments, using their resources and expertise to lobby delegations and promote policies which better protect the environment (Williams & Ford, 1999: 277; World Growth, 2010: 7), including support for trade restrictions on cadmium batteries and asbestos (BBC, 1999). Civil society is therefore able to influence the negotiating positions of both the industrialised and developing countries which attend WTO negotiations (Zahrnt, 2008: 412). However, in practice, business interests tend to dominate lobbying activity, while civil society organisations, particularly grassroots movements, are marginalised (Hanegraaff et al, 2011: 453). Therefore, while civil society is able to engage with the WTO through national governments, these opportunities are limited in scope and are often dominated by business interests that are supportive of the existing multilateral trade regime.


For many, the WTO is perceived as highly undemocratic, producing agreements which benefit corporations at the expense of the World’s poor and the environment. Civil society organisations are often seen as a remedy to these issues, providing a voice for marginalised interests as well as critiquing and transforming the agenda of the WTO. The core argument of this post has been that while the WTO has reformed in order to allow civil society greater access to its decision-making and dispute settlement functions, direct civil society engagement with the WTO remains very limited and has not produced significant transformation in the multilateral trade regime.

In response to protests and questions over its legitimacy, the WTO enacted numerous reforms which increased the transparency of its operations and allowed civil society organisations to participate in trade deliberations as well as the DSM. Yet in practice, these reforms achieved little; civil society is prevented from making significant contributions, with attendance at Ministerial Conferences and the Public Forum directed more towards enabling the WTO to educate civil society organisations on the benefits of trade liberalisation and the ‘good work’ of the WTO. Further, the WTO specifies that its engagement is limited to NGOs, thus preventing other groups, such as grassroots movements from participating. In many cases, participating NGOs are from the global north, with organisations from the developing world underrepresented. Further, NGOs are often highly professionalised, and are shaped through their interactions with the WTO. As such, genuine ‘bottom-up’ civil society organisations are prevented from engaging formally with the WTO; the focus is on NGOs which often support the WTO’s neoliberal policies rather than seeking genuine reform and transformation of the multilateral trade regime.

Indeed, while reforms which would grant civil society organisations greater access to the WTO’s institutions are possible, many members remain committed to its intergovernmental character. Thus, civil society is restricted to achieving change through national governments. While both partnerships with governments and the lobbying of national delegates have brought about some change, this is restricted to those groups who have the required expertise and the resources to compete with corporations. Thus, civil society remains on the sidelines, prevented from formally engaging with the WTO and bringing about progressive transformation in the multilateral trade regime.


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