Photo by APEC Chile 2019

By Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria

Colleagues often ask me this question: how do we build support for trade agreements and other trade development policies?

Ensuring consistent and broad consultations is a good start.

Participants in a recent event hosted by the World Trade Organization and the Rajaratnam School of International Studies certainly agreed. They included legislators from across the Asia-Pacific region, including Central Asia to the Pacific islands, and they were looking to gain insights on advancing greater trade for their economies. They wield enormous influence in approving agreements and ensuring effective implementation.

Stakeholder engagement can help trade negotiations, which can be all consuming. We learned in Malaysia that broad consultations with constituents beyond the business community, including civil society, parliament and the public at large benefit us.

Feedback from the public is tremendous – from civil society and interest groups, and opposition lawmakers. That input presents opportunities. In response to the feedback we received, we held roundtable and townhall meetings. Not only did the consultations forge more trust, but they produced great ideas about finding common rules for trade.

Let me share my tips for smoothing out the complex process of negotiating and ratifying trade treaties.

First, inform your constituents. Share publicly information that may be shared, through the various channels available, such as websites and email distribution. Shyness has no place in trade development.

Second, consult broadly. Don’t underestimate the public’s interest – anyone from postal workers to clean water associations may have concerns. View these questions without bias. Face a consultation with an open mind and see it as an opportunity to brainstorm towards mutually beneficial solutions. Listen and learn.

Third, follow up and follow through. In today’s world of constant and transparent communication, lip service is the stuff of yesterday. Incorporate great ideas when possible and share back with your constituents. Closing the feedback loop can be mutually rewarding.

At APEC, we undertake consultations with our members on a continuous basis. This is the key to achieving consensus over the years in a voluntary forum. The World Trade Organization recently reminded us that the collaboration enabled by APEC has been indispensable to their negotiations. This includes APEC’s contributions toward the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, the Environmental Goods Agreement, and expansion of the Information Technology Agreement.

Another benefit to consulting and collaborating broadly with stakeholders? It encourages trade negotiators to use language that everyone can understand. Thank you, parliamentarians and other stakeholders, for reminding us that it is in our interest to make sense of technicalities than can confound. Here’s to more consultations and collaboration for greater trade that benefits us all.