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WTO Think-In

Three things?transparency, a real engagement with NGOs in addition to government and business, and increased ethical behavior by businesses?are the directions of the WTO after Seattle. These are early days. By no means are anything close to the majority of companies on board. But they indicate the direction we're moving in.

The truth is that you cannot have institutions in the world?WTO or anybody else?that are not transparent. Companies recognize that transparency is real. CNN is everywhere. If businesses are doing something bad, they're going to get found out. Running shoes, for instance, are going out of fashion and sales are off. Why? Among the reasons is the public response to how Nike has behaved. Nike has just become "less cool" than it once was. The most threatening scenario to a company like Nike is to be less cool. They don't really sell running shoes; they sell cool. So, the effect of transparency is real. Companies see it, know it.

That doesn't mean everybody's going to be happy with the outcome of more openness and transparency. There are real conflicts of interest and viewpoint. For example, you can make a legitimate case for the Three Gorges Dam and you can make an easy case for why Three Gorges is a terrible idea. So, opening the process does not mean everyone is going to agree with the decisions that result. That's important to recognize.

The mechanics of making the WTO more transparent are not very difficult. The companies can withstand having working sessions and meetings held out in the open, and documents published. That doesn't require profound change at the level of treaties. It is procedural. The participants can demand the change. The United States or other countries or companies can demand it.

Including process (how a product is harvested and manufactured) in the discussion of that product and its trade regulations is another example of a substantial issue that gradually enters the WTO agenda?in the same way that various environmental and human rights issues moved from "that's political, not an issue for business" to being part of the trade agenda.

I think process rules, like other rules, change because of enough pressure, and agreement by the players involved that they actually want to start dealing with them. Five years ago, it was a big deal to even raise the issues of climate change; today, you don't have any trouble talking about them. You actually end up changing the rules and the norms over time as people come to accept each of these issues in turn. In other words, I don't think WTO will persist in its present mode.

The second really big change in recent years is the new role of NGOs. In the past, big business and government basically dealt with each other, and that was the story. The environmental movement changed all that, and the process continues with human rights and other issues. NGOs used to be considered advocacy groups, not participants. They were people to be dealt with, not engaged with. Now there is a willingness to engage in debate and conversation with NGOs as legitimate participants in the process.

A consequence of Seattle was that two months later at Davos, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum [a high-profile, global, private conference with no direct governmental authority] opened up to a lot of the protest groups. Inside the hall at Davos, participating on panels and so on, were Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, and a number of other NGOs. The organizers invited the groups partly in response to Seattle, realizing that it was better to have them inside than outside.

The Davos business/government groups were willing to have a direct debate with some of the more militant NGOs that wanted to demonstrate against the leaders of the World Economic Forum. So they had a session for dozens of NGOs with the head of the World Economic Forum and a representative CEO (my friend Göran Lindahl, the head of ABB). It went surprisingly well, though it began with a group of German protesters shouting and walking out of the room. Then the moderator (Danny Schechter, who runs an alternative-media center in New York) did a brilliant job of moving the conversation forward and getting a lot of people to the floor. It was mostly folks from developing countries, dealing with issues of indigenous cultures and those kinds of things. It was a good, serious confrontation and very constructive. It was a "next step" response to Seattle.

The third new direction, increased ethical behavior by businesses, has to do, in part, with recruiting and retaining good people. This is a surprise to me, but it's really big. In the industrialized, high-tech, leading-edge-industry world, you have a huge challenge attracting and retaining the best people. The best people want to work for the best company. They don't want to have to go home and apologize for what they do. They don't need to; they can always work for better companies. That's especially true of younger workers, and younger talent. It's part of employee/employer agendas now?the employees demand to work in a place that they respect.

Some of the Seattle protestors demanded that no more items like financial services, agriculture, or forestry be added to the WTO agenda until many current issues such as transparency have been resolved. I know that these protestors think things are getting out of hand. I don't. Stopping the agenda is like filibustering in the Senate. I find it unconstructive. There are legitimate arguments and challenges to the processes of the WTO and its agenda. But I don't think much is actually served by obstructing the evolution of the organization. I think, as a political tactic, that it actually just sends it back. That's my general bias, not just with regard to the WTO. It's like the US holding up its money for the UN. It just hurts people. It's really stupid. I don't like that tactic in politics, period.

On the other hand, while I'm not sure demonstrating is definitely the best tactic, it's not bad. Demon-strating is actually effective communication to draw attention to these issues. I think Randy Hayes, and Greenpeace, and Amnesty have been effective in that way. It is largely educating the public so that they are concerned and become important constituents to put pressure on business and government. There's an enormous amount of ignorance?not on the protestors' part, but on the part of the general public. The WTO is not on their agenda. There's a substantial education job to be done that's worth doing, and that will build in the same way that environmental awareness did.