Harsha V. Singh is the deputy director general of the World Trade Organization, which is based in Geneva. Recently in Boston to speak to the Center for Emerging Markets at Northeastern University, he spoke with Globe reporter D.C. Denison.
What is the World Trade Organization?
WTO is a legal agreement among 155 members, mostly nations. It sets up a system of rules, and a dispute resolution process, so that open trade flows as evenly as possible. The effort is to keep markets growing, with background assurance that if you have some [domestic] problems you can address them.
So open, global trade is the goal.
Basically, the WTO is a system to maintain growth and open markets that countries came up with after a very bad experience in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when they realized that if countries erect arbitrary trade barriers, that closes markets and reduces opportunities.
Why do WTO meetings always attract so many demonstrators?
That was more true in the past, and it was based on a large number of misconceptions. One was that WTO stands for only opening up markets, that it’s a system that exists only for large corporations and large countries. The early protesters believed that the WTO does not have a place for development objectives, that it doesn’t have a place for environmental objectives, or other areas of social concern.
And it does?
The WTO actually has sustainable development as one of its key objectives. It allows you to put in place measures such as standards, technical regulations, or even border measures if they are necessary to meet objectives, such as for the environment or health and safety.
What would be an example of that?
If you feel that your domestic industry is suffering because another country is dumping or selling subsidized imports that injure your domestic industry, you can put measures like anti-dumping or countervailing measures. You have the possibility of using domestic support measures for small-scale industry, for improving technological ability, for education, for insurance.
So you’re saying that the WTO also works for small countries.
Yes. All nations benefit from trade and stable, growing markets.
But the WTO meetings still attract protesters.
But many fewer than earlier meetings; for example, Seattle in 1999.
The US has opened our markets, but other countries haven’t opened their markets as much. Is that fair?
The US is one of the economies that has helped build this system. It has a great stake in open markets, stable markets. And markets have been opened by all WTO Members. Tariff levels have come down substantially in both developed and developing countries.
In your talk at Northeastern, you mentioned that global trade in services are growing rapidly. What kind of services?
Education, health care, insurance, banking, movies, consulting. Basically, ‘services’ includes a whole gamut of activities that are not manufacturing, not agriculture. A lot of growth is taking place in these knowledge-intensive industries.
One reason I’m here in the US is I’m showing my daughter the universities here. And if I send her here to this region, which has some top schools, and which I hope I’ll be able to do, I’ll be importing services from the United States. So this area is very important. You can see how many foreigners come to study here. And they carry back the links of those schools with them when they go back home.
So the benefits continue even after graduation.
Yes, alumni continue to use those links when they develop further services, further demands. These educational connections lead to investment links with different countries. So it’s a growth area, with very many economic, cultural, and social positive implications.
That’s good news for New England, with all our colleges.
Absolutely. Linked to education are skills. Linked to skills are jobs. In today’s dynamic world, more jobs are created in services area than in many other areas. I truly feel that the potential for the growth of jobs, and prosperity in general, is very high for this region.