Mon | Sep 27, 2021

Editorial | Shaw’s opportunity for serious trade discourse

Published:Tuesday | March 2, 2021 | 12:08 AM

At 65 years old, Jamaica ‘s Trade Act may indeed be in need of an overhaul, which, this newspaper reported last week, is being contemplated by the industry and commerce minister, Audley Shaw. So far, Mr Shaw has not indicated what he intends the new law to look like. Private-sector leaders who have commented on the plan have offered only broad, and mostly vague, outlines of their expectations. None of which touches on what, if any role they expect Jamaica to play in the global economy, and what should be the rules governing international trade.

The latter point is important, especially in the face of recent global developments, including the change of administration in the United States and the appointment of Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s mandate is to lead a reform, and revival, of the organisation. In the circumstances, Mr Shaw, even as he deals with a seemingly domestic issue, has an opportunity to lead a national conversation of Jamaica’s engagement of a critical global process, which has been among the more glaring shortcomings of the Holness administration.

The management of Jamaica’s trade arrangements is bifurcated. Negotiating international agreements, such as the island’s membership of the WTO, is the job of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade. Regulating trade and commerce in the domestic market is the responsibility of the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce (MIIC), headed by Mr Shaw. We expect that there is coordination between the two ministries before foreign ministry technocrats head off to global trade negotiations.

STAKEHOLDERS OUT OF THE LOOP

However, the foreign ministry has never been good at keeping the private sector and other stakeholders consistently in the loop about how or what it is negotiating on their behalf. That weakness has only grown worse in recent years.

Neither, it is our sense, that the MIIC, and its various iterations, has seen it as its mission to robustly discuss the goings-on at Geneva, or elsewhere, with its domestic constituency. Nor have the private sector, trade unions or civil society groups insisted on it. Which, if we are right, is wrong. For, the agreements negotiated by the foreign ministry’s staff, in conjunction with their regional counterparts and the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Office of Trade Negotiations, ultimately affect Jamaican consumers and how Jamaican firms compete internationally and at home.

In other words, Audley Shaw should not only be aware of, but should have a keen interest in, what takes places at the WTO and international trade fora – wanting to shape them in the interest of Jamaica. That starts with being aware of what his constituency, Jamaican private sector and workers, believe to be in their interest and having a good sense of what is deliverable.

Put another way, Mr Shaw, or whoever holds the portfolio for trade and commerce, has to appreciate that despite his or her declared power, under Section 8 of the Trade Act “to prohibit absolutely the importation or exportation of any class or description of goods to any country”, that this authority is, these days, severely circumscribed by Jamaica’s obligations under international treaties, such as the WTO’s. This awareness is crucial if the Government is to be able to deliver, in a new law, on the wish of Richard Pandohie, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA), for export incentives and an easier path to relief from unfair practices that cause market disruptions.

Such demands are likely to take Mr Shaw straight back to the councils of the WTO and to how Jamaica, and like-minded countries without global muscle, can shape the discourse at trade talks in their favour and begin to collect on the promise of globalisation. Indeed, the Doha Round of global trade talks, which were to focus on the concerns of developing countries, came to nought.

LIKELY TO FACE PRESSURE

Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, who yesterday took over as the WTO’s director general, has suggested that these issues will be high on her agenda. But she is likely to face pressure from major powers, especially the United States, to pursue other issues they consider of more immediate concern. While Joe Biden, the US president, is inclined to multilateralism, which was eschewed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, he, too, believes that the WTO should attend quickly to broader reforms, including America’s claim that China abuses the world trade system, and that the basis on which Beijing entered the global trading system is no longer tenable. The Americans are also likely to pursue their case for a major overhaul of the organisation’s dispute-settlements arrangement that they brought to a halt by blocking the appointment of new judges to its appeals body.

For countries like Jamaica, getting heard at the table is one thing. Knowing what we want from the discussions is another. Getting there begins by first debating among ourselves, arriving at a consensus, then taking that consensus to our CARICOM partners, and from there to other potential allies, including those in the global South, who are likely to have similar concerns. Minister Shaw should see this process as part and parcel of his preparation for the new trade law.