BANGLADESH can hardly expect a major expansion in its external trade under the prevailing circumstances after the signing of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). But the benefits to accrue to Bangladesh under any WTO-sponsored multilateral trade talks such as the Doha round of talks, can be more immediate and fulfilling. The on-going Doha round of talks of the WTO are confronting serious difficulties due to the conflicting positions of different interest groups and some commentators are speculating about the imminent collapse of the Doha round. However, there is still some remote possibility that the talks might be salvaged and could renew. Whatever the developments, none is yet seriously expecting the demise of the WTO and, thus, prospects of multilateral trade talks remain. Bangladesh must prepare itself diligently for participation in these talks to best promote its interests.
The last WTO meeting at Hong Kong exposed the weaknesses of the country in this respect. It was alleged that the Bangladesh team went to Hong Kong with inadequate preparations and, therefore, could not position itself skillfully in that vital conference to make the most in the trade negotiations. It is felt that expertise to conduct negotiations successfully have not significantly improved after the Hong Kong meeting. But notwithstanding the current scepticisms about the Doha round, a number of WTO-sponsored meetings remain on schedule in the coming months. These coming talks could prove to be very important for the least developed countries (LDCs) like Bangladesh. But it does not seem that the government is paying as much attention as it should. One reason could be the nearing of the end of its tenure and the other may be the greater concern about the political situation with the imminent elections. But the vital economic interests of the country cannot be sacrificed to such factors. Surely, the government needs to be proactive to overcome its deficiencies in respect of WTO negotiations for the country to be able to exploit the economic opportunities to arise from successfully participating in them.
Proposals to this end have come from a workshop the other day in the capital city that was held to discuss these issues. One main recommendation is to create the position of a full-time representative of Bangladesh at WTO's headquarters in Geneva. Currently, the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh at Geneva, which is also the European headquarters of the United Nations, finds himself torn between his WTO-related activities and his diplomatic tasks. Being its appointee, he is more accountable to the foreign ministry, which does not have a focused attitude or the required capacities to work for the all-round improvements of the country's external trade. Thus, creation of a full-time office of a WTO representative at Geneva under the Commerce Ministry and ensuring his having necessary staff to do his duties efficiently, can be an important step towards improving Bangladesh's capacity building for the WTO negotiations.
Besides, the current WTO cell in the Commerce Ministry needs to be revamped. The present practice of staffing this cell with officials on transfer on a short time basis for several years, often without proper background to do their work satisfactorily, must be replaced by a policy of posting officials there for a much longer duration so that they can acquire relevant knowledge through exposure and experience and better utilise their accumulated expertise in trade negotiations. The same practice should be followed in the office of the full-time representative at Geneva. Besides, the government should recruit well qualified persons giving them incentive salaries and perks for both its WTO cell at home and for the Geneva office for participation in trade negotiations.