By Nwadike Bacchus
As a freshly minted graduate and alumnus of the Masters in International Trade Policy (MITP) Programme at the UWI Shridath Ramphal Centre (SRC), Cave Hill Campus, I anticipated that my first real test to apply the skills I acquired would take the form of the traditional 3-month internship. However, at this time of writing, we are not in traditional times. The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously disrupted what was once considered normal. Restrictions established in the name of public health and safety have limited conventional means of interaction, but at the same time created opportunities that might not have been presented or seized otherwise. One such opportunity was participation in the 24th Edition of the Model World Trade Organisation (MWTO) International, and a chance to work on a document that will be sent to the Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
The MWTO Conference is the largest simulation of the WTO negotiations in the world, providing a unique opportunity for students to experience first-hand the technicalities of the multilateral trading system. It is organized by the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland with the full support and involvement of the WTO Secretariat, WTO delegations and Committee Members. The online conference – which ordinarily would have been face-to-face – ran from April 10th to April 15th 2021 and invited participation to those who could not normally afford to travel, including those of us enrolled at the SRC.
As a proud student of the University of the West Indies, and a Blackbird of the Cave Hill Campus, I was pleasantly surprised to have been accepted as the sole representative from the Caribbean region. The Model WTO had inadvertently given me the responsibility of being the first interaction with the West Indies for many of its participants from over twenty-six countries.
This year’s theme for the conference was ‘Trade and Public Health’, a very pertinent one given the challenges being faced with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Participants were divided into delegations representing twelve countries. We were to debate the role of the WTO in balancing trade and health interests that reflected ongoing WTO discussions. The delegations were South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Australia, China, Singapore, Brazil, Canada, Russia, the European Union, Switzerland and the United States of America. Each delegation consisted of roughly five members, each tasked with negotiating in one of five committees.
Committee 1: Export Restrictions
Committee 2: Technical Barriers to Trade
Committee 3: Research and Development Subsidies
Committee 4: TRIPS 1 (Compulsory Licences) & TRIPS 2 (Test Data)
Committee 5: Institutional Matters
The committee I was placed under was that of Export Restrictions. This was of great interest to me seeing as two courses I thoroughly enjoyed in the MITP were those of Trade in Goods: Market Access, and International Negotiations & Advocacy. The Export Restrictions Committee allowed for the marriage of those two interests, along with a healthy dosage of International Trade Law, to find solutions towards the adverse effects of export restrictions in times of crisis. I was part of the Indian delegation, and my fellow delegates came from very different corners of the world, inclusive of Singapore, the United States of America, Mexico and Germany. We were a colourful bunch, and I enjoyed our discussions in trying to set the objectives we perceived India would want to achieve in our individual committees.
The experience in representing the country of India was also a unique one in that I had to stop thinking as someone coming from a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) in the Caribbean, but now as someone from one of the largest economies in the world. India views itself as a champion of the developing nations. It has both the soft and hard power influence on the global stage to let its voice be heard. The responsibility was now mine to carry that voice into the Export Restrictions Committee, and come to a consensus with the representatives from seven other countries.
The organisers of the Model WTO were very creative in replicating the physical conference in a completely virtual setting. Each participant had interesting stories reflecting our individual time zones. Some had to log in as early as 3:00 AM to make the 1:00 PM CEST daily starting time through the utilisation of various virtual tools. These included the software of Gatherly, Zoom and Discord, that together allowed complete immersion and timely dissemination of information on the proceedings.
On the Gatherly platform negotiations took place in three arenas. Within the committee rooms, in the Head of Delegates meetings to discuss overall developments, and through individual delegations meeting unofficially with other countries to form coalitions.
In the Export Restrictions Committee, it was eye opening to experience the detail that went on in the negotiating processes of the WTO. Setting the agenda alone took a session and a half. The need to come to a consensus meant that if we all did not all agree then the process could not move forward. It stressed the need for compromise and the forming of alliances for a variety of issues, such as transparency, dispute settlement and the creation of coordinating bodies.
The delegation of India was able to form an alliance with the delegations of China and Bangladesh to ensure that Special and Differential Treatment was absolutely afforded to Developing and Least Developed Countries (LDC). It was interesting to note the differences in objectives from the Developed Countries such as Canada and the European Union.
In the days of negotiating there were also Zoom call sessions with the actual WTO Delegations of the countries we were representing. The WTO representatives of India provided invaluable insight on the country’s real-world interests and objectives on the topic of Trade and Public Health. It was reassuring to know that we were on the correct path in our individual committees and to pick the brain of a WTO Representative. There was also an enthusiastic exchange of banter and metaphors utilising the sport of cricket after the representatives discovered that I was from the West Indies.
Almost every day of negotiating ended with a half hour or more of social activities. This was for all participants in the Model WTO to get to know one another better, as would have been the case in a physical event. The organisers achieved this with software games and other interactions that brought us together after hours of intense debate. Friendships were made and we all aim to see one another in person one day.
After six days of deliberations, the final document, with the agreed upon decisions of all five negotiating committees, was presented at the closing ceremony on April 15th 2021. As the delegate from India, I was tasked with presenting the decision of the Export Restrictions Committee on the topic of Trade and Public Health. The document was adopted with the final vote of all the delegations present.
My experience in the Model WTO taught me that export restrictions are a barrier to trade that may provide a short-term solution to the health concerns of the countries that implement them during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, in the long run, countries do not only interact with themselves. If the rest of the world is still being affected by the virus, then one’s country will always be at risk. The only real solution is for there to be a global response as opposed to a solely unilateral one. It was made clear that the multilateral trading system of the WTO provides the ideal forum for global dialogue and solutions within an established framework for enforcement.
I am truly grateful to the SRC, The University of St. Gallen, and the World Trade Organisation, for the opportunity to have participated in the Model WTO 2021. It was an extraordinary experience. One that has opened eyes, instilled confidence and provided hope in what can be achieved.
Mr Nwadike Bacchus
MITP Cohort 16
UWI Class of 2020
Intern, Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce