Advocates Mount New Initiative for WTO to Recognize ‘Public Goods’ in Trade Agreements – from Medicines to Forests
Public goods
A panel discussion at the WTO’s Public Forum on “Creation and Protection of Public Goods for Health (the Experience of COVID-19)”.

At a World Trade Organization Public Forum this week, public health advocates argued for the creation of a new WTO framework to stimulate voluntary offers by countries to supply more ‘public goods’ to trading partners and the world, including investments, assets and know-how critical to protecting the world against future pandemics and other health or environmental crises.

A panel discussion at the World Trade Organization’s Public Forum on Friday took up the topic of a novel trade-based initiative that they say could help incentivize countries to share new technologies, assets and know-how more readily – not only for meeting health emergencies, but other types of health and environmental challenges.

The idea, says James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), is to create a new framework for recognizing ‘public goods’ within the WTO trade rules, whereby governments can make voluntary, but binding, offers to supply such goods to other WTO trading partners – including, but not limited to public health products, investments and know-how.

Examples of ‘Public Goods’ – KEI Presentation at WTO Public Forum.

The initiative on public goods is modeled on the modeled after the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), a landmark deal from the Uruguay Round negotiations in 1995.

GATS is meant to provide a reliable system of international rules for trade in services, and to facilitate the progressive liberalisation of services markets.  But a unique feature of the GATS framework is the opportunity for countries to make voluntary, but binding, “offers” to liberalize domestic trade rules around services provision  – usually in exchange for another type of trade concession. For instance, a country can voluntarily pledge to drop domestic restrictions against foreign firms’ provision of any kind of services – from credit card management to hospitals administration.  But either directly or indirectly, it might obtain, in exchange, commitments from other countries for benefits or concessions – on issues ranging from agricultural subsidies to tariffs on vehicles.

Make ‘public goods’ part of the international trading environment

Excerpted from: KEI presentation at WTO Public Forum.

In a similar vein, a GATS-like framework for ‘public goods’ could allow, for instance, rich countries to pledge to share money or know-how on vaccines or medicines – in exchange for a developing countries’ pledge to reduce tariffs on electric car imports or even to conserve a biodiverse ecosystem of global significance – as part of the wheeling and dealing that anyways takes place around more conventional trade agreements.

“The idea is to make the public goods part of this trading environment,” said Love and one of the leaders in the novel effort to forge such a new WTO trading framework on such ‘public goods’.

“We’re not picking a fight with the drug companies or the energy companies or anyone else,” he added.

“The decision to supply a public good can be used to get something else you want from other countries at the WTO, or avoid something that you don’t want to do,” said Love. He says that the GATS framework has been highly successful in incentivizing trade liberalization of services precisely because it is heterogenous, but still rules-based.

“It’s not a winners versus losers situation,” Love said of his proposal. “It’s a clever hack at the WTO that has a path forward.”

Public goods debate at the World Health Organization

The question of how and if medicines, vaccines and other public health products could be redefined as ”public goods” also lies at the heart of World Health Organization talks on a proposed new pandemic accord, which began with broad agreement over the summer that a new legal instrument should complement but not repeat provisions of the existing WHO International Health Regulations, while respecting national sovereignty in terms of public health responses.

In those debates and hearings that have since followed, including a new round of public hearings on Thursday and Friday, a significant number of civil society organizations, as well as Asian, African and Latin American nations have stressed that public health responses to the pandemic and investments in R&D for countermeasures should be treated as, and accounted for as public goods- e.g. requiring more public sector investments with the resulting products then freed from profit-based constraints on pricing and distribution.

However, while the campaign to redefine essential medicines and vaccines as “public goods” has been a longstanding aim of many public health advocates – in the realities of the marketplace, it remains that private, not public investments, still drive much critical health related R&D.

Public goods
A slide shown by Antony Taubman, WTO’s director of intellectual property, government procurement and competition division, at a Public Forum discussion

Speaking at the WTO public forum panel, the French virologist Marie-Paule Kieny, a former high-ranking WHO official who now chairs the Medicines Patent Pool, argued “it is really the time to advance” the idea of public goods over “private goods and private profits.”

But making public health resources more broadly available, she said, “will need to be supported by sustainable financing.”

Against those hard realities, incentives for countries to offer up certain kinds of “public goods” in exchange for other types of trade concessions, could be an attractive proposition, panelists argued.

Antony Taubman, WTO’s director of intellectual property, government procurement and competition division, told the forum he believes “it’s a proposal that is quite fertile, in terms of making us all think.”

“More broadly it is a discussion about what it takes to deliver public goods sustainably,” he said. “But it’s also a refection … on how multilateral negotiations work.”

Taubman joked that sometimes “it’s tempting” to call WTO “the World Trade-off Organization,” because of the need to accommodate so many competing interests.

But the “concept of global public goods,” he added, “is in its own a valuable organising idea.”

Elaine Ruth Fletcher contributed to the reporting of this story. 

Image Credits: John Heilprin, KEI .

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