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Reforming WTO Decision Making: Lessons from Singapore and Seattle

SCID Working Paper 63





As developing countries began to participate more actively in GATT activities, the so-called “concentric circles model” became the organization’s de facto way of coping with the problem that while membership in virtually every GATT body was open to all members, once the active participation in a meeting exceeded a certain number (say 25), the group’s work became increasingly cumbersome, inefficient and ultimately impossible. Under this model, an issue-specific “inner circle” of members functions as a discussion, debate and negotiating group for the issue at hand. It either reports the results of its efforts to a larger circle of members, or directly to the entire membership, which is asked to take a consensus decision on the recommendations. Carried over to the WTO, this model was heavily criticized by many countries at the first WTO Ministerial Conference in Singapore in December 1996, and was again even more roundly—and publicly—attacked at the 1999 Ministerial Conference in Seattle. This paper argues that in those instances in which it is impossible to constitute an inner circle—or “green room meeting”—without excluding one or more WTO members wishing to be included, continued reliance on the informal concentric circles model can only progressively damage the WTO’s ability to function, as well as its internal and external credibility. It then goes on to make the case for creating a formal “WTO Consultative Board” whose design and operating procedures would draw on the strong points of both GATT’s Consultative Group of 18 (1975-87) and the IMF/World Bank Boards, while at the same time avoiding the shortcomings—from a WTO perspective—of both. The discussion includes a look at which WTO members are likely to initially oppose the creation of such a Board, and which members could be expected to support the proposal.