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Trade and Development

Thirty-two years ago, when I first came to ASTM, I used to hear it said that standards were a language between buyers and sellers, a language of trade.

But trade isn’t what it used to be. No longer a freewheeling adventure, trade is organized into a set of rules. And the language of trade is a new language set against a backdrop of globalization, trade agreements, and the World Trade Organization. Many of the terms are uncommonly subtle and euphemistic. Trade capacity building. Development policy. Technology transfer. Technical assistance.

But they’re translatable. The rules of the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement require those who have more to help those who have less by offering them technical assistance. Technical assistance is not limited to, but includes, advice on the preparation of technical regulations (standards) and the development of standardization skills. Trade capacity building programs and development policies are the plans by which governments meet this obligation.

But make no mistake — when donor governments form trade development policies, or strategies, it is purposeful. And rightly so. Technical assistance is not altruism. It is business. It is not charity; it is developing future trading partners. It is matching regulations and regulatory aims. It is investing with standards.

Developing nations represent 80 percent of the membership of the World Trade Organization. They will undoubtedly develop at different rates. But trade will lead to development and development will lead to trade, and these nations, freshly empowered and great in number, will affect the global trading system in ways we cannot foresee. What standards will be in their portfolios? What standards will form their technical regulations? What markets will they favor?

In his October 2001 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., Robert B. Zoellick said: “Trade is about more than economic efficiency; it reflects a system of values: openness, peaceful exchange, opportunity, inclusiveness and integration, mutual gains through interchange, freedom of choice, appreciation of differences, governance through agreed rules, and a hope for betterment for all peoples and lands.”

Well said.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

Note: Trade and development will be the subject of future Plain Talk columns.

Copyright 2004, ASTM International