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Developing Countries and International Standardization

by Fabio Tobón

Developing countries often don’t have adequate funding to oversee comprehensive standards-developing programs. This leaves them looking to international standards to meet their industrial, public safety, and regulatory needs. But, as Colombia’s Fabio Tobón says, the governments and standards bodies of the developed and developing nations all have an obligation to assure the greater involvement of the latter in the world arena.

With the globalization and openness of the world economy as a result of the changes in the world geopolitical environment, voluntary technical standards have taken a paramount role in the international exchange of products and services. These standards are used today as the basis for the technical regulations imposed by each country to protect the health and safety of its population. So technical regulations and the standards on which they are founded could become either active and unnecessary barriers or facilitators to world trade.

Voluntary technical standards are usually written in developing countries by their national standards bodies (NSBs), which are recognized by their governments and usually are part of it. Some 92 percent of the NSBs in developing countries are governmental institutions that lack funds, technical capabilities and the ability to participate in the international standards world. Developing countries, in creating their own national standards, generally use international standards as their basis to avoid creating barriers to trade and help their own industries compete in the world arena. But what an international standard is and how it is defined is a difficult question and a hot area that the World Trade Organization has not been able to fully address.

In simplistic language, it could be said that international standards are those that are used and accepted internationally, meaning worldwide. Much has been discussed recently about this important topic, since it is recognized today that voluntary standards play an important role in world trade, a role that increases every day.

The WTO has been working in this direction with the aim that voluntary standards be used by all countries as the basis for their technical regulations, avoiding unnecessary barriers to trade. But the WTO is in no way close to resolving the argument about whose international standards should be acceptable in technical regulations under the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement. Any international standards organization that wishes to obtain that recognition must comply with the principles of transparency, openness, coherence, impartiality and consensus, and effectiveness and relevance. But international standards organizations must also strive to meet this TBT requirement: “Tangible ways of facilitating developing countries’ participation in international standards development should be sought.”

A New Awareness

Today it appears that the European Union and the United States are “fighting” each other to impose their standards model without any consideration to the needs of developing countries. The U.S. voluntary standards system differs from the approach taken by Europeans, which have embraced mostly the ISO and IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission)system. In this system, participation is based on representation from NSBs and a one-country/ one-vote process. In the United States, the standards system is based on individual participation, mainly of experts worldwide that can offer their expertise in writing the standards.

As a result of the WTO “pressure” upon the different countries, there has been a recent awareness of the importance of involving and getting the active commitment of developing countries in the standardization process. As of today the participation of the NSBs from developing countries in the international standardization process is almost negligible; in the end the standards bodies of developing countries don’t count in the writing of worldwide standards. It would be safe to say that the industrialized world is imposing its technical standards upon developing countries, regardless of the application and usefulness of those standards in those countries.

The increase in the activity of developing countries in the standardization world is a two-way responsibility. There has to be more willingness on the part of developing countries to participate for the benefits it will bring to their economies. On the other hand the international standards bodies have to be more proactive in establishing better and more “custom made” programs that fit the needs of developing countries.

With the globalization of the world economy, it is of paramount importance that developing countries contribute in a major way to the writing, implementation, and application of international standards if we would like to have a fair and open world trade.

We at ICONTEC, the Colombian standards body, recognize that there are different ways to write standards and that we could use different sources, from Europe and the United States, as the basis for our national standards. The U.S. standards developers must recognize the importance of developing countries and must make the necessary efforts to include the national standards bodies from our countries in their process. It will be beneficial for both the United States and developing countries.

We need the active involvement of developing countries’ NSBs with the support of their industries and government. But we also need the openness of the different standards organizations in the world to encourage and facilitate our involvement. We don’t want to be “stone guests” in the international standards process. //

Copyright 2002, ASTM

Fabio Tobón is executive director of ICONTEC, the national standards body of Colombia, and a member of the ASTM Board of Directors.