The Cape Town Round

So, I’m in this class.

It’s called, “Applied International Trade Bargaining”.  As I mentioned before, it’s essentially a WTO simulation, where students get to represent countries in the WTO, bargain and negotiate with each other to pass trade laws in the interest of the country which they represent.

As I also mentioned before, I represent the country of Chad, and at the beginning of the course, it concerned me because as a Least Developed Country (LDC), I don’t have a lot of influence.  But, I was reassured by people who have taken the course that it becomes fun later.

Sure, alright. The class seems very interesting. I’ve never taken a class like this before. There aren’t that many lectures.  It would really push me to meet new people because it is highly involved.  I could really get to experience first hand what it could be like to be a part of the WTO, which is a major institution that exists in the world.  I could also learn about development from a developing country’s perspective, which is beneficial as I want to be doing development work in the future.

But, it has quickly been something that has taken over my mind, my energy, and my sanity.  And I’m not alone.

So, everyone in the class represents a country.  But, it’s not one person, one country.  If it is a bigger country with more influence, there are more people in the delegation.  The US has 9 people in its delegation.  India has 3.  Germany has 3.  China has 8.  Canada has 7.  Brazil has 3.

Then, we’re supposed to vote on motions, and generally, it’s majority rules.  But, it’s not so that everyone has one vote either.  Every Japanese delegate has 1.5 votes.  Everyone US delegate has 2 votes.  Which means that the US has a total of 18 votes (if they are all present when voting occurs).

The voting and the representation system is supposed to represent the power dynamics that are present in the world right now.  In the real WTO, there is no voting (nor will there ever be), but there is something called the “single undertaking”, which means that that all countries have to agree with the trade agreements.  However, it is never so that everyone agrees to the agreements, so it really just becomes that all the countries that matter have to agree to the agreements.  So, if the US, anyone in the EU, India, and other big countries didn’t agree, they have to continue to bargain to reach a settlement or that country would withdraw from the WTO.  But, if these big countries withdrew with the WTO, there wouldn’t be a WTO.  Can you imagine a WTO without the US?  It wouldn’t exist!

Which is what happened historically after Bretton Woods.  The International Trade Organization (ITO) was supposed to be established after WWII, but the US wasn’t interested, so it couldn’t be established.  Therefore, a trade treaty, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) took its place.  But, when the US was ready to be a part of a multilateral trading organization, the WTO was formed.

Anyway, we’re simulating a “Cape Town Round” of the WTO, and the voting system is unique to the Cape Town Round.

So, here’s how to play this game:

  • For three hours a week, we all participate in chat rooms online, where we are supposed to flush out “motions”.  These motions are essentially things that we want to implement in order to further our interest.  We’re in chat rooms with other countries: developed, developing, and LDCs.  They are called Green Rooms, and they are about specific trade topics.
    • My Green Room is about the Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) agreement and the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreement.  So, if I want to change, add, remove anything regarding these and the Doha Agenda (which the current agenda we are trying to resolve), I would first bring it up here.  I have to be an expert in these two topics to do anything in the green room.
  • Then, we bring the motions we have talked about to Sub-Plenum (SP), which is a bigger group of countries.  The topics are also expanded.  In SP, we actually vote on motions, and we all have made placards to show that we represent our respective country.
    My placard that I use during voting periods, and on the screen, how the online chat room looks like.
    • My SP involves TRIMS and TBT, as wells as the Trade Related Intellectual Property rights (TRIPS) agreement and E-Commerce.  So, in SP, I have to know how my country feels about these other two topics so I could appropriately vote on them.
  • After motions have been through SP, they are brought to Ministerial Council (MC), which is where the whole class votes on motions.  Usually, there are so many motions that come through to MC, so we never get the chance to vote on them all (advantage of the first mover).  But, as a single delegate, I have know how my country feels about all the motions that get through to MC.

By this point, I think you can infer what the challenges I have been facing as a single-person delegate of a very poor country with little influence.  First, I am alone.  One of the things that the tutors tell us to do is to do research.  Know your country’s stances on all motions and topics.  This means I have to do all the research on all the topics by myself, which is hard because I have other responsibilities besides this class.  Being alone is also hard because there is no one else in the class that has the same exact interests as I do, and therefore, I can never have the external affirmation from other classmates that this is the right way of doing things or the right way of voting.  I can’t discuss my strategies with other people (besides strategy consultants).

Second, I have one vote.  It doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things.  One thing that is unique to this class is there is blatant bribing that occurs.  The countries who in real life donate foreign aid, this amount acts as a bribery budget.  The US, obviously, has the largest amount of foreign aid, and therefore, has the most power to bribe others to vote their way.  As a poor country, it is in my interest to sell my vote and be bribed because aid money can really help my country.  But, bribing… is… kinda… unethical?  Forms of it happen in real life.

Third, the structures of the class also promote a kind of competitive behavior that I am not comfortable with.  I totally understand friendly competition and the benefits of competition.  I get it.  But, it’s a little unfair when one person in the US has 8 other people to work with, and I don’t really have anyone.  And when people have more power over others, there is a certain type of arrogance that emerges.  Yes, many countries can push me around, and I really don’t like that.

In the first few weeks of the chat room, every time the US or Canada would put forward a motion, the rest of us were quick to question the intentions.  Who does this benefit?  Will it benefit me?  Who is this attacking?  We’re all very skeptical of each other, and I don’t like that.

LDC funnyThe purpose of the WTO is to have a multilateral structure to preside and ensure that trade flows as smoothly as possible because no one country could survive in an autarkic world.  We need each other’s resources.  But, it really discourages me from wanting to be a part of something where some people are strategizing to “hurt” other countries or won’t concede for the benefit for others.  These are some of the sentiments that I get from some people in this class.  And sometimes, I don’t want to be around some people, even though I know it’s not anything against them, but their strategies in playing this game.

And I also understand that there are trade-offs with every motion that gets passed.  We have to balance the interests of all the countries very carefully in these negotiations, but there is so much room for back room deals and bribes.  Even before any kind of negotiating started, we were told by professors and tutors that were would be some shady business and being pushed around in this class.  They were so honest about it.

And as LDCs, we feel it.  People have held power over us, and it’s really discouraging.  To the right are a few screen shots of the kind of chats that have happened in the LDC WhatsApp group.  The dog biting off the cat’s head is representative of developed countries and LDCs.  I wonder who the cat represents.  And below is some banter about wanting to disband the WTO.

As an LDC, you don’t have a lot of influence so you have to form alliances.  It’s better to sell your vote as bloc because you could potentially get more foreign aid.  But, when you’re voting, you have to vote in your interest and balance out the interests of the other countries in which you have an alliance with.  There’s power in numbers, but it’s really hard when all your interests are different.  The class has definitely shown that alliances don’t hold that well, and certain motions could split groups up.

What’s really interesting about the current state of the WTO right now is that it’s supposed to benefit developing countries the most.  In the early stages of trade after WWII, there were only a few key players and a few goods to trade (relatively).  But, as the world developed and countries became decolonized, there were more sovereign interested players that wanted to be a part of the WTO.  Plus, a highly industrial and manufacturing world changed when services became more popular in developed countries, and modern technology became accessible.  There is just more to talk about and more countries that are involved, and there’s less faith that a multilateral agreement would be able to resolve all our interests.  In 2001, the Doha Development Round was the first time the WTO took into account the interests of the developing countries.  Therefore, it is the best interest of developing countries that this Round gets resolved.  But it’s been fourteen years and it still hasn’t been resolved.  The most recent round to resolve Doha was in Bali, just last year.  It was close to being resolved, but no dice.

Over time, it is proving that the Doha Agenda may not even encompass all the trade topics that need to be discussed, and it’s proving harder and harder to reach an agreement.  Over time, other countries have been turning to regional trade agreements (eg. NAFTA, TPP) instead of the WTO to get what they need.  Even though it is in the best interest of developing countries to resolve the Doha Round, developed countries are losing interests, and developing countries need developed countries.  Which is why we allow ourselves to get pushed around by developed countries sometimes.

It’s a very interesting dynamic, and I’m not even sure if I’ve said everything that I wanted to say.  All I know is that this class is taking up a lot of my time and my energy.

I talked to one of the professors of the class, and he said that there have been students in the past who have petitioned this class for teaching “bad ethics of behavior”.  Other professors of other courses have complained that this class takes up way too much time and doesn’t allow for students to focus on other classes.

There are some other interesting things about this class too.  All the countries of the EU have to vote together because it is a customs union, which makes it a challenge for EU members because that have to collaborate.  We’re allowed to make treaties outside the WTO, but they can’t break certain treaty rules.  If you are a big country, you are expected to make larger gains towards your interests compared to the mild gains that are expected for small countries.  But, as an LDC, my interests could potentially vary dependent on other countries.  But, as a small country, I care about a few things related to my country, but big countries have many more topics to care about.  But, if the topics that I care about are in different SPs, I have to reach out to countries of that SP, who have similar interests as me, to put forth a motion that will benefit me.

Additionally, you must be present with your placard in order to vote, so in the past, there has been the case that students have stolen placards or told them of the wrong room.  This class is curved, and you are essentially markers on how much you contribute compared to everyone else.

I have strong negative feelings about this class, but I am actually really glad that I got a country like Chad.  As an LDC, no one specifically targets your wellbeing.  People do want to help LDC develop (in order to access their markets).  And I also just wouldn’t want to be the person that is dishing out the bribes and being devious.  I’m just not that kind of person.

A few weeks ago, one of the tutors said, “If you’re having fun, you’re doing this class wrong.”  Well … I’m sorry for being nice.  But, doesn’t this give you insight to what the real world is like?

Over and out.

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