WTO 2018 – Opening plenary debate

26 Sep 2017 09:00h - 11:15h

Event report

The opening plenary debate of the WTO Public Forum 2018 was introduced and moderated by Mr Roberto Azevêdo (Director-General, WTO), who delivered a keynote speech on what trade will look like in 2030, while covering some of the topics that will be discussed during the forum, such as ways in which trade could become more sustainable. He argued that digital platforms are creating more ways of doing trade. Thus, a question could be raised: Is today’s global trading system equipped to face the changing environment we live in? With this regard, the basic principles of the WTO apply, however, they are not enough. The evolution of technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI), 

and blockchain is challenging the trade system by creating gaps in the current legal frameworks. Following this line, Azevêdo argued that ‘we are not going to stop the evolution, but we can shape it’. Concluding his speech, he stated there is a need to start shaping technology, without waiting to completely understand all its specific elements.

The first panellist, Mr Erik Solheim (Executive Director, UN Environment, Under-Secretary-General), addressed the following question: How can trade help environmental sustainability? He stated that trade and environment are deeply interconnected, as both rely on the best use of resources. With this regard, Solheim gave the example of solar energy producing more energy than non-renewable sources in 2017, underlining that this could have not been done without trade. Despite the fact that global poverty has been reduced almost by half, the general perception is that it has doubled. This is due to a lack of publicity of data and achievements. Moreover, he advocated in favour of a triple win solution with benefits for people, by creating jobs; the environment, by promoting sustainability; and health. He stressed his point by using two examples; the introduction of ecotourism in Botswana, and the initiative in India to stop using plastic by 2022. Finally, he stressed that it is important to stop the fight between trade and environment.

The second panellist, Mr Jack Ma (Executive Chairman, Alibaba Group), addressed the question of trade in 2030 and shaping our perspectives. He shared his willingness to stop the fight between trade and environment, and adding that we need to stop worrying about the future and the evolution of technology. Ma argued that trade will definitely be different in 2030, but this should not represent a concern. He took the example of globalisation to show how at the beginning only few companies benefited from it, while today the percentage of businesses benefiting from globalisation has grown on a large scale. Following this line, he argued that in 2030 goods will not be referred to by which specific country they are made in, instead they will be referred to as ‘made in the Internet’ goods. Furthermore, he argued that e-commerce will be the leading force, and the service industry will create more jobs in the future than expected. For this to happen, it is important for small business to reach the market, logistics, technology and training. Finally, he concluded by stressing that we cannot stop technology, we need to embrace it: ‘change yourself, but do not change technology’. During the Q&A session, Ma strongly argued in favour of innovation as a solution to current problems, stating that ‘it is not the regulation that solves the problem, it is innovation’. By doing so, he underlined what, in his opinion, are the wrong ways of interference by governments. Solheim complemented the answer by showing the Norway system; where legislations are created after having open consultations with tech companies for an extended period, before implementation. With regards to the current US-China economic relations, Ma argued that tension is ‘not good for anybody’. Tensions would affect not only US-China trade relations, but other countries as well. There is a need for collaboration in the creation of new jobs, and trade should not be the weapon to fight against each other.

The third panellist, Ms Laura Behrens Wu (CEO and co-founder, Shippo), addressed the question of how small businesses can be competitive. She explained how the idea of her business came into practice. One of the biggest challenges in e-commerce can be the shipping mechanisms for e-commerce stores. However, with the help of technologies in place, people can now ship directly from their online location to national and international locations. E-commerce does not have boundaries and technology represents a leverage for success.

The fourth panellist, Mr Tunde Kehinde (Co-founder, Lidya), addressed how to make finance available for small businesses. Explaining how technology can improve access to finance for small players, he talked about Lidya and its ability to finance small businesses within one day, using existing data. He stressed this point by saying that as long as small businesses in developing areas are good actors, and there is data to show that, they can get access to the bigger market. Finally, he argued that governments should create legal and policy frameworks that allow better clarity for engagement in the private sector.

The final panellist, Ms Christine Bliss (President, Coalition of Services Industries) talked about trends, collateral effects, and dangers of technology transforming trade by 2030. She argued that small economies will not grow unless trade and investment allow that. With regards to the service industry, she stated that services are integrated in all sectors, from insurance to financing. Moreover, with the advent of the Internet and the digital economy, there will be an increase in the importance of services for trade due to the evolution of AI, online platforms, and big data analytics, to cite a few. In terms of the collateral effects, the explosion of data flows should not be underestimated, with its close links to privacy and cybersecurity concerns. Answering to a question from the audience, she further stated that services will represent the new jobs of the future.

Finally, the Q&A discussion covered different topics, such as the future of currencies, and the use of cryptocurrencies in the future. It was stated that they will have to be supported by governments.