Making world trade fairer

The global trading system is tilted against less wealthy countries; our research supports fairer policy and has strengthened international negotiations for several states.

Freighter on the open seas
The research has transformed insights, narratives and bargaining tools for developing countries in the WTO.

Developing and least developed countries (LDC) have struggled to benefit from the multilateral trade system. Our research has exposed the disadvantages in the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) legal framework, informed the negotiating positions of these states, and supported the development of policy to improve their trading prospects.

Developing countries are at a disadvantage in trade negotiations for a number of reasons: they lack appropriate resources, technical expertise and opportunity; they are less able to gain from trade because key economic sectors remain closed to their imports, and WTO rules are more advantageous to the industrial countries.

Our research at the Brooks World Poverty Institute (now the Global Development Institute) has raised awareness about the inequalities in the multilateral trading system. It has produced new insights, narratives and bargaining tools for developing countries in the WTO.

Key uses of the research include

  • Helping to advance the interests of developing countries during the Doha round negotiations
  • Informing policy statements and country position papers in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East
  • Supporting states to develop coherent positions during accession negotiations
  • The advancing debate about the future of the multilateral trading system.

Prof Rorden Wilkinson and his team convened a high-level Global Poverty Summit with 50 of the world’s leading poverty thinkers that concluded with two major international declarations; additionally, they set up the Commission on the Future of the Multilateral Trading System.

In addition, Prof Wilkinson has been appointed as an expert advisor to two high-level working groups, LDC IV Monitor and Future of the UN Development System. LDC IV Monitor confirms that Prof Wilkinson’s research-backed input has “… enabled us to significantly improve key messages” and that his work “remains vital”.

Key quote

“The research has transformed insights, narratives and bargaining tools for developing countries in the WTO”

Our research

The research, which was undertaken in four phases, began by assessing the legal and institutional disadvantages confronting developing countries in WTO negotiations before going on to explore the negative impact of political practices and behavioural norms in negotiations. The work also analysed how knowledge, discourse and common sense affected the negotiating position of countries.

Key findings

  • As a broad group, developing countries are structurally and institutionally disadvantaged by WTO rules, norms, negotiating practices and decision-making procedures.
  • Common sense ideas about the value of trade, the consequences of institutional breakdown and crisis, and the means by which trade gains are ‘measured’, distort the negotiating positions of less-able states.
  • Participation in multilateral trade leads states into behaviour that can reinforce existing inequalities, regarding both agenda-setting and outcome
  • The capacity of developing countries to effectively negotiate is inhibited by a lack of knowledge about the institutional and structural inequalities they confront.
  • The most likely reforms to the WTO will at best maintain, and at worst exacerbate, the inequalities in world trade.

Key people

  • Prof Rorden Wilkinson

Further information

  • Global Development Institute