Mr. Eliott Harris Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist

Opening Remarks
at the High-level Symposium on Strengthening Multilateralism and Multilateral Trading System in the Age of Globalization

Dear colleagues,

We have decades of evidence that demonstrates international trade as the engine of growth and development. No nation has grown in isolation, and trade is what brings us together.  Significant increases in global trade since 1990s have enabled more than a billion people to escape extreme poverty and destitution. We do not need counterfactuals to understand and appreciate the pivotal role of trade in global development. A rule-based, non-discriminatory multilateral trading system is a sine qua non for ensuring unimpeded flow of goods and services across our borders.

History has repeatedly shown that unilateral trade measures, taken outside a multilateral framework, can be very costly for growth and development. This is what we learned from the so-called “Beggar Thy Neighbor” policies of the 1930s – when major economies of the world unilaterally raised tariff barriers. For any country, the intended positive effect of these measures was negated since all other countries took similar actions. As a consequence, world trade volume decreased, plunging the world economy into a decade long Great Depression.

The bitter lesson of the Great Depression prompted world leaders to create a rule-based multilateral trading system, not only to reconstruct the world economy, but also to ensure global peace and stability. We have come a long way since 1940s, creating an equitable and transparent multilateral trading system under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. Today, 164 Member States of the UN are also members of the WTO, accounting for more than 97% of world trade in goods and services. The 2030 Agenda duly recognizes the critical importance of the multilateral trading system to deliver sustainable development for all. In particular, SDG 17.10 calls for a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system.

Since the global financial crisis, we have witnessed a steady increase in trade-restrictive measures across both developed and developing regions. The recent escalation of trade dispute between the two largest trading partners in the world is also ominous. More broadly, the multilateral trading system and globalization now face a growing challenge from rising nationalism and protectionism in many parts of the world. Free trade is often the populist scapegoat for persistent unemployment and under-employment, wage stagnation and growing income inequality in countries small and large. These views often ignore the impact of technology on the labour market or the erosion and absence of adequate social safety nets and redistributive policies. The multilateral system must work together and redouble its efforts to change the narrative that unfairly blame international trade for domestic policy failures. Given the rising trade protectionism in many parts of the world, the need for strengthening the multilateral trading system is now more urgent than ever.

I hope the symposium today will shed new light on how we can protect and promote a rule-based multilateral trading system from the onslaught of growing populism and protectionism. This is our collective responsibility – to foster the system that we built over the last 70 years. This is what we owe to posterity and we must succeed in our endeavor.

I Thank you.

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