Building Global Recognition and Forging Partnerships Worldwide
ASTM International has always been a truly international standards developing organization at least as long as I have been here, and that is for the last 32 years. We have always been open to full voting participation by interested individuals and organizations throughout the world. This is true now more than ever Internet technology has impacted standards development as much as it has any business by breaking down borders and enabling round-the-clock access to information and participation. ASTM standards, known for their technical quality, have been used around the world for many decades as the basis of national standards, by reference in regulation or for trading purposes, quality control or protecting the environment.
Despite this widespread use of ASTM International standards, things changed in 1995. It wasn’t ASTM standards or its standards development process that changed, but the perception of what constitutes an international standard. It was this change that led ASTM International to become much more assertive in its global outreach initiatives. This article will discuss the misperception of the phrase “international standards” that came to take hold in standards development and government circles in 1995 and what ASTM is doing to ensure that the world is aware of, and can take advantage of, our fully open and transparent international standards development process.
In January 1995, the World Trade Organization came into being as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The WTO creates the rules of trade between nations; through membership in it, nations negotiate and implement new trade agreements. The WTO ensures member-country adherence to all of its agreements and one of these is the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. The TBT agreement’s objective is that “technical regulations and standards... and procedures for assessment of conformity with technical regulations and standards do not create unnecessary obstacles to international trade.”
One section of the TBT Agreement specifies that “Where technical regulations are required and relevant international standards exist or their completion is imminent, Members shall use them, or the relevant parts of them, as a basis for their technical regulations except when such international standards or relevant parts would be an ineffective or inappropriate means for the fulfillment of the legitimate objectives pursued” (emphasis added). In other words, if a member of the WTO uses standards in regulations that govern trade, that country should, to be in compliance with the WTO TBT agreement and whenever possible, use international standards.
Suddenly the term international standard gained utmost importance to governments worldwide. But its meaning also became almost universally misunderstood. The WTO did not define what an international standard is. That lack of a definition led many governments and industries worldwide to assume that international standards only come from three standards developing organizations: the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
After six long years and possibly hundreds of debates in the worldwide standards community on what constitutes an international standard, the WTO TBT committee finally clarified in 2001 just what an international standard is. They declared that an organization must comply with a set of six principles in order to develop standards that can be considered international. It is very important to note that the TBT committee did not declare that ISO, IEC, ITU or any other organization for that matter is a developer of international standards; it specified principles with which an organization must comply. Those principles are:
• Impartiality and consensus;
• Effectiveness and relevance;
• Coherence; and
• Consideration of the concerns of developing countries.1
ASTM International fully complies with these six principles. Once they were published, we made it a primary objective to ensure we strengthened our compliance with every principle with room to spare.
We quickly discovered that we did not have a problem ensuring adherence to the principles. Our chief problem was that the world did not know, or chose to ignore the fact, that ASTM is as much an international standards developing organization as any other that complies with the principles of the TBT Agreement. The world thought we were just another of the many U.S. standards developing organizations. In many cases, national standards bodies did not know who we were, industries did not know and certainly governments worldwide did not know.
We had tremendous work ahead to reach out to the leadership of governments and standards organizations worldwide to let them know that ASTM is a fully open international standards body. We needed to let them know that ASTM International standards can be used without fear of noncompliance with the WTO TBT Agreement. We had already collected some data from many countries and knew that ASTM standards had been used for decades in their regulations and were used as the basis of their national standards. But with the increasing trends by national standards bodies toward aligning all national standards with ISO and IEC, we realized that unless we aggressively worked to dispel the great misperception created by the TBT agreement, the use of ASTM standards in the international marketplace could soon diminish.
With that as background, we began in 2001 to promote a new cooperation between ASTM International and national standards bodies worldwide. We organized a new Global Cooperation division to promote the ASTM International standards development process and the use of ASTM standards worldwide. We needed to be as proactive as possible in getting the word out about ourselves and in seeking new global partnerships that would fuel our growth throughout the world.
Our first endeavor was to sponsor an open house for the leaders of the national standards bodies of 22 Latin American, Caribbean and North American countries in November 2001. ASTM International provided the financial resources to bring all representatives to its headquarters for a three-day program. Attendees engaged in wonderfully open discussions about the definition of international standards, the WTO TBT agreement and how ASTM complies with the TBT principles for the development of international standards. We also discussed these countries’ major standards issues and concerns and how we could support each other and increase their participation in the ASTM consensus process. At the conclusion of the program we offered all the national standards bodies a memorandum of understanding with ASTM.
We held three more open houses over the next six years with the cooperation and participation of the American National Standards Institute and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In 2003, we hosted 16 national standards bodies from the Asia-Pacific region and included the head of the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee on the agenda. In 2005, it was 15 countries from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, and we signed MOUs with Palestinian and Iraqi national standards bodies; just this past May 2007, we hosted 11 countries from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Each open house provided a marvelous opportunity to foster dialogue, dispel misperceptions about international standards, and provide an opportunity to show ASTM’s capabilities as a fully open and transparent international standards developing organization. Through each program we made many new friends and built the foundation for much greater global cooperation.
Memorandums of Understanding
As mentioned, at the start of our open house program, ASTM International began the signing of what now totals 48 memorandums of understanding with 47 national standards bodies and one regional standards body from, for the most part, developing countries. The MOU is an agreement between ASTM and signatories to work together to support the standards needs of these countries or regions of the world.
The following are the general goals of the MOU:
1. Promote communication between ASTM and the partner standards body;
2. Avoid duplication of work efforts where possible;
3. Promote knowledge of the standards development activities of each organization;
4. Utilize the resources of ASTM International to strengthen other countries’ national standards systems;
5. Promote greater input and content from individuals and organizations worldwide in the ASTM International standards development process; and
6. Promote the other country’s acceptance and use of ASTM International standards.
Through the MOUs, ASTM provides all of its standards to the national standards body, free of charge, for their internal use toward the development of their own national standards. We waive the membership fee for any representatives of MOU countries to participate as full voting members on any of ASTM’s 140 technical committees and subcommittees. We also provide free technical training for our MOU partners.
As a sidebar to this article (See the next page) we have included information about each of the organizations with whom we have signed and maintained MOUs. As you will see, the MOUs are not just static documents. We are building growing relationships. The MOUs are as good as ASTM International and our partners can make them. Some are thriving, others need a little push. We at ASTM are as responsive as we can be. For many of our MOUs, ASTM has provided technical training programs both by sending our technical experts to the partner country or through online virtual training. This year we began a technical assistance program for 10 MOU countries where we provide in-country training free of charge for any of our ASTM training courses. We have begun with programs in Bolivia, Ecuador, Jordan, Vietnam, Zambia and Mexico.
Standards Expert Exchange Program
As part of the MOU program, we also recently instituted a new scheme to host standards experts from at least three of our partners each year at our headquarters for one month of training. They have come from China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Zambia so far. This October, we will welcome representatives from Colombia, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. We have been richly rewarded each time by the experts who have been a part of this program and the representatives have a great opportunity to get to know the ASTM International standards process.
Has the global cooperation program been a success? A resounding yes. For the most part, every MOU partner has representatives from their country participating on ASTM technical committees. And every MOU partner has also reported using ASTM standards either by reference in their own standards or adopting some as the basis of their national standards.
ASTM’s international participation on our technical committees from representatives outside of the U.S. and Canada has grown by over 35 percent since our global cooperation efforts began in 2006.
ASTM standards are being used in more industries and countries then ever before and are adopted as the basis of national standards at a greater rate each year. Prior to the implementation of our MOU program, we did not have a lot of data on the adoption of ASTM standards by countries worldwide. But since requiring the reporting of that data as part of the MOUs, we have kept records and now count over 3,500 ASTM standards used in more than 75 countries worldwide a number that continues to grow.
When in 1995 the WTO TBT agreement stipulated the use of international standards in regulations and the world misconstrued the meaning of international standards, ASTM International could have been quiet, stayed on the sidelines and watched as our relevance slipped in the world. But we didn’t. I take great pride in knowing that we have the best international standards development system in the world. ASTM is a place where technical experts are treated as equals no matter where they come from where politics is limited and technical expertise is paramount.
Through our global cooperation efforts, ASTM International has grown stronger. There is greater recognition worldwide of our international standards development status. We still have a way to go, but we are building great momentum. We still need greater international participation. Our technical committees need to meet more often outside of the United States. We still need to figure out the language issues. But those things will come. As we look ahead, it is encouraging that the world is waking up to see that they have a choice in the international standards organizations in which they wish to participate. They have the opportunity to influence the content of ASTM International standards and to use them in ways that make a meaningful difference in the world we live in. //
1 Click here for a full explanation of these six principles.