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In June 2020, the Kazakh government is going to host the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference. This week, GED is meeting their negotiators for a workshop identifying best practices in hosting multilateral conferences. This event is organised together with the Centre for Multilateral Negotiations.

Reaching decisions on international trade by consensus amongst 164 governments is an extraordinarily difficult task. The management of the negotiation process by the host government and WTO Secretariat can play an essential role in tipping the balance between deadlock and agreement.

While effective process management alone will not solve the problems that the WTO faces, it can create more favourable conditions for reaching consensus. Conversely, poor process makes this already difficult task practically impossible.

Effective negotiation management consists of seven key elements:

  • preparing well in advance;
  • teamwork both within the host team and between the hosts and the Secretariat;
  • transparent, consistent and realistic communication;
  • selecting the right individuals for the job;
  • breaking the process down into small-group negotiations and handling this with care;
  • leveraging the legitimacy that non-party stakeholders can bring to the process;
  • and increasing the likelihood of agreement through managing the agenda, draft texts,and the overall atmosphere of the negotiations.

Both process and context determine negotiation outcomes. Comparing the 1999 Seattle Ministerial Conference with the 2001 Doha Ministerial Conference allows one to hold the context relatively constant, thus demonstrating the independent effect of process management. Variation in process management by the respective organisers of the two summits led to very different outcomes.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was a notable success for multilateralism. Like WTO negotiations, climate negotiations also take place in the challenging environment of consensus decision making. Process management by the French hosts is considered a model of best practice, and has been widely credited as a factor behind the successful outcome. Lessons can be learned from this case.

Future hosts of Ministerial Conferences are specifically recommended to pay attention to the following:

  • It is vital to consult with as many members as possible in advance of the Ministerial. If budget allows, it is preferable to travel to capitals to demonstrate respect.
  • To avoid conflict further down the road, clearly define the respective roles of the Director-General and the Conference Chair from the outset, with the Conference chair taking the political lead.
  • The host government cannot manage the entire process alone and will need to appoint facilitators to chair issue-specific working groups. This critical role requires specific skills and experience. Organising a workshop for facilitators in advance of the Ministerial could increase their effectiveness.
  • The format, attendees and timing of small-group negotiations at the Ministerial can all affect results. Whatever form these meetings take, transparency is a crucial consideration.
  • Seemingly trivial details such as room facilities, security and catering at the venue all matter to delegates and can cause unnecessary friction when mismanaged.