By Sarah Flamm
I had the pleasure of representing the delegation of the United States at the 19th annual Model World Trade Organization [WTO] this April. With the generous support of SIEPR and the Europe Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute, I traveled to Switzerland to join 60 graduate and undergraduate students from different parts of the world to deliberate over the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA). The simulation took place at the University of St. Gallen and the WTO headquarters in Geneva. Over the course of an intense week, we delegates negotiated and drafted amendments to the GPA to reflect changing national and international priorities and values.
Government procurement refers to purchases of goods and services made by government agencies with public money for public purposes. Sound dull? Well, the topic is way more interesting and polemical than one might suspect. Federal procurement represents a huge market ($530 billion in the United States), making its impact quite consequential. The goal of the GPA is to facilitate and to open trade opportunities, ensuring that governments follow non-discrimination, transparency and procedural fairness in procurement. It is one of the few agreements whereby the United States has allowed itself to be subject to international arbitration, favoring the benefits of market access. Government procurement is also symbolically important, reflecting how nations choose to spend their money, and whom they decide to support.
I represented the delegation of the United States, along with four others students hailing from Belgium, Switzerland, China and Hong Kong. We all were assigned to represent the United States on committees: Green Procurement, Anti-corruption, African Participation, SMEs, and Social Issues. I served on the Social Issues Committee, addressing priorities in government procurement as they relate to labor standards, minority rights and discrimination, among other issues. Our goal was to promote the United States’ agenda across each committee, and ultimately we succeeded.
On the Social Committee my negotiation goals were not overly ambitious, considering how wary the United States is of international bodies, and its long-standing aversion to committing to international standards. I wanted to achieve two main goals: 1) insert the term " social issues " into the GPA text in order to empower governments to explicitly take social responsibility into account when awarding government contracts, and 2) define "social issues" to mean meeting minimum labor standards, notably complying with the two International Labour Organization conventions that the United States has signed (Convention 105- Abolition of Forced Labour and Convention 182- Worst Forms of Child Labour).
Over the course of six moderated negotiation rounds (it was a challenge to follow the overly formal WTO procedural rules), we discussed these as well as priorities raised by other countries. The negotiations varied from meticulous arguments over text, for example should social responsibility be a mandatory consideration or simply one of several factors that along with cost and performance metrics, governments may take into account when tendering and awarding contracts?; to practical discussions on how to create allowances for developing countries that currently rely on child and cheap labor, making them presently unable to meet the requirements of developed countries in order to compete for contracts.
Amidst negotiations, our delegation consulted with David Bisbee, the "real life" Attaché at the US Mission to the WTO. He advised on negotiations and strategy, and upon conclusion of the negotiations we met with him in person at the US embassy in Geneva. It was interesting playing a country that is not very enthusiastic about multilateral bodies such as the WTO. In reality, the United States would probably have abstained from voting to include the Social Issues language that we had promoted, because of the fear that it would open the door to discrimination. Such broad language could be used for exclusionary purposes by Parties. But this ambiguity also means the United States could exclude as well...
At the end of the week, we meet with lawyers from the WTO Secretariat in Geneva who gave us detailed feedback on the new GPA text we had created. This provided an opportunity to better understand whether our results were realistic, and how they compared to real negotiation outcomes. We also learned about the procedure for ratification of the amended document.
Simulations like Model WTO differ from reality in that countries such as China are more willing to compromise than they would in reality. But the absence of politics and personalities allowed for expanded policy space in which our countries to come up with workable solutions. Furthermore, I enjoyed meeting new friends from all over the world. I would love to one day in “real life” represent the labor and trade priorities of the United States, much as I had the opportunity to do in the Model WTO simulation.