This article offers an alternative account of the performance of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – an institution whose performance is usually assessed in terms of its capacity to function as a forum for the exchange of mutually beneficial trade concessions, its ability to act as an arena in which trade rules can be negotiated and its capacity to serve as a forum for settling trade disputes. The article argues that when understood in these ways, the performance of the WTO inevitably appears lacklustre. However, the fact that member states remain committed suggests that the criteria on which an assessment of the institution’s performance ought to be based are different and the way in which we conceive of the institution is flawed. The article argues that if WTO performance is measured as the institution’s capacity to act as a strategic device to maintain and exacerbate the advantages of a group of industrial states over their less powerful and developing counterparts (an aim that is much closer to the institution’s intended purpose), then it has actually been quite successful, albeit undesirably so.
An alternative assessment of the performance of the WTO suggests that it has been far from lacklustre, as is commonly held to be the case, and has actually been quite successful in satisfying the interests of the leading industrial states.
However, such an assessment also shows how developing countries as a group have consistently been net losers in the multilateral trading system.
This situation is no longer tenable. There is a pressing need to reform the institution fundamentally to rebalance the economic opportunities afforded to developing countries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, as well as to think seriously and differently about the design of the institution and the interests it serves.
Meaningful reform of the WTO cannot, however, come from minor adjustments to its operating procedures. What is needed instead is a much more wide-ranging discussion about its purpose, form and function, as well as the value of trade liberalisation (currently constructed or otherwise) as a vehicle for development and poverty reduction.