The WTO and Economic Development

Ben Zissimos (University of Exeter Business School)

My new edited volume tilted The WTO and Economic Development, brings together a collection of perspectives on different aspects of the purpose and institutional design of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and how these relate to economic development.[1]  The perspectives are contributed by a group of leading scholars in the economics of international trade.  The role that the WTO and its progenitor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), have played to date in facilitating economic development, and the role that the WTO can reasonably be expected to play in the future, is the unifying theme.

The following summary is based on my introductory chapter, which presents a synthetic literature review to develop context for the contributions that follow and draws basic insights.

Chapter 1, by Robert Staiger, sets out a comprehensive framework for formally incorporating non-tariff measures (NTMs) into a model for analyzing a multilateral trade agreement, taking tariffs into account as well.  The chapter notes that while developing countries tend to impose border NTMs on imports from developed countries, developed countries tend to impose behind-the-border NTMs on imports from developing countries.  A key contribution of the chapter is to show that an agreement involving border-NTMs is in fact amenable to a terms-of-trade motivation.  Since border-NTMs can exert a negative terms-of-trade externality on trade partners, by causing a reduction in demand for their exports, an agreement over border-NTMs has the same motivation of escaping from a terms-of-trade externality as in the conventional tariff-based ‘terms-of-trade theory’ of trade agreements.[2]

Chapter 2, by Chad Bown, adopts a more traditional focus on tariffs.  The motivation is compelling, arguing that there are 3.5 billion people in the world who have yet to benefit from an agreement to lower tariffs under the GATT/WTO, the overwhelming majority of whom are in developing countries.  The chapter tests for developing countries an implication of the terms-of-trade theory of trade agreements that has been shown to hold in developed countries.  The implication focused on in the chapter is that, through WTO negotiations, members are requested to take on lower tariff binding commitments in products for which they have higher market power, and thus where their tariffs (if left unchecked) would result in larger terms-of-trade externality losses for trade partners.  The chapter identifies well-defined groups of developing countries for which the implication holds, and groups for which it does not, showing that the terms-of-trade theory is relevant to developing-country trade liberalization through trade agreements but is not the only motivation.

Chapter 3, by Rodney Ludema, Anna Maria Mayda, and Jonathon McClure, studies the evolution of the so-called ‘MFN free rider problem’, an implication of the terms-of-trade theory.  In their earlier work, Ludema and Mayda show that an exporting country’s benefit from an MFN tariff concession by another country is proportional to exporter concentration.[3]  An exporting country’s willingness to pay for an MFN tariff concession on the product it exports with tariff concessions of its own depends on how much its refusal to offer concessions would reduce the MFN tariff concession.  The smaller the exporter, the less its refusal would mitigate the tariff cut, and thus the less costly it would be for the exporter to refuse to make a concession, thus free-riding on the concessions of other countries.  An intriguing contribution of the chapter is to show that, through the growth of trade with emerging economies such as China since 1993, the MFN free rider effect is found to have gotten worse.

Chapter 4, by Xuepeng Liu, considers a puzzle concerning so-called non-member participants (NMPs).  NMPs consist of three groups: colonies and overseas territories of GATT members; newly independent states; and provisional members.  NMPs are relevant here because they tend overwhelmingly to be developing countries.  The first econometric literature on the effects of the GATT/WTO explores whether member countries really have different trade patterns than outsiders, thus assessing the effectiveness of the GATT/WTO in liberalizing trade.[4]  The literature shows that they do, but in the process finds an ‘NMP puzzle’: while two formal GATT members trade 61 per cent more than the baseline case of neither country being a formal member nor an NMP, two NMPs trade 140 per cent more than the baseline.  It is counterintuitive that the NMPs should trade even more than formal members.  Chapter 4’s main contribution is to show that the ‘NMP puzzle’ can be resolved by undertaking two relatively simple modifications to the original gravity equation approach of the prior literature.

In Chapter 5, David DeRemer develops a model for analyzing a trade agreement when autarky is the (unique) outcome of non-cooperation over trade policy.  While the canonical model of trade agreements with perfect competition and political economy has proved to be powerful and flexible in explaining many aspects of trade liberalization under the GATT/WTO, it cannot motivate a trade agreement of the kind that DeRemer considers.[5]  Specifically, in the canonical model, if each government has a unilateral preference for autarky then they must have a joint preference for autarky as well.  This limits the scope for studying situations where developing countries have adopted autarkic trade policies for specific sectors, but where there may nevertheless be scope to open these sectors as part of a trade agreement.  For example, developing countries have commonly produced busses and trucks domestically behind high tariff walls.  The chapter adopts a familiar ‘Brander-Spencer’ type model in which to motivate and explore the scope for a trade agreement when autarky is the non-cooperative outcome.

Chapter 6, by Fabrice Defever and Alejandro Riaño, looks at the export promotion policies implemented by China, and how these have promoted the transition of China from autarky in the 1970s to the world’s largest exporting economy today.  The point of departure for this chapter is a set of stylized facts on firm exporting behavior that has been established in the economics literature for the world’s major trading economies: relatively few firms engage in exporting; exporting firms tend to be more productive and hence larger; most firms that do export sell only a small fraction of their output abroad.[6]  The chapter reveals that, on the face of it, the characteristics of Chinese exporters fit the stylized facts listed above. The most striking difference, the chapter finds, is that a third of firms export almost all of their output: China is thus characterized as having a ‘dual export sector’.  The overall conclusion of the chapter is that China’s export promotion policies have been responsible for creating its dual export sector, and have been instrumental in China becoming the world’s largest exporter.

Chapter 7, by Eric Bond, considers whether an efficient trade agreement should allow for gradual trade liberalization to mitigate adjustment costs.  Recent research has shown that the adjustment costs of moving productive resources between sectors in response to trade liberalization are significantly higher than previously thought.[7]  These costs are likely to be particularly high for developing countries, where adjustment is likely to involve geographical relocation between rural and urban settings.  The analytical approach taken in Chapter 7 is to examine the optimal liberalization path between two large countries, where workers face adjustment costs of moving between sectors.  The results show that if tariffs are the only policy instruments available, then developing countries should be allowed longer phase-in periods if their marginal costs of adjustment are higher than in developed countries.  Hence, the analysis shows that there may be a normative justification for so-called ‘special and differential treatment’ of developing countries.

Chapter 8, by Eric Bond and Kamal Saggi, contrasts the roles of price controls and compulsory licensing (CL) to improve consumer access to patented foreign products in developing countries.  While the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement created a storm of controversy, the eye of the storm was over the implication that, as a result of the agreement, it became more difficult for poor people in developing countries to access medicine at affordable prices.  Under the terms of the TRIPS agreement, if a patent holder refuses to grant access to its product on ‘reasonable’ commercial terms then a government may grant a CL to a different firm to produce the product.  The main lesson of the chapter is that the social value of CL depends crucially on entry costs and the size of the market, and is ambiguous.  This ambiguity seems to be a feature of outcomes under the TRIPS agreement more broadly, making it difficult to assess the extent to which it is beneficial or harmful overall.

The ninth and final chapter, by Mostafa Beshkar and Mahdi Majbouri, tests empirically the outcomes of disputes, focusing on whether or not they lead to litigation, taking explicit account of whether or not the dispute involves developed and/or developing countries.  The chapter focuses on the fact that developing and developed countries show divergent behavior in the dispute settlement process.  A surprising pattern uncovered in Chapter 9 is that, in a dispute between a developed and a developing country, litigation is more likely if the developed country is the defending party.  As detailed in the chapter, 62 per cent of disputes in which a developed country presses charges against a developing country are settled without establishing a dispute panel. In contrast, only 44 per cent of disputes are settled without establishing a dispute panel if a developing country mounts a dispute against a developed country.  Importantly, the chapter shows econometrically that this asymmetry disappears after 2001, when the Advisory Centre on WTO Law (ACWL) was established to make available advice and subsidies to poorer countries, to help them with the costs of mounting a WTO dispute.


Bagwell, K., and R.W. Staiger, (1999); “An Economic Theory of the GATT.”  American Economic Review 89: 215-248.

Bagwell, K., and R.W. Staiger, (2002); The Economics of the World Trading System.  MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass), US.

Bernard, A.B., J.B. Jensen, S.J. Redding, and P.K. Schott, (2007); “Firms in International Trade.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 21(3): 105-130.

Dix-Carneiro, R., (2014); “Trade Liberalization and Labor Market Dynamics.” Econometrica 82(3): 825-885.

Ludema, R., and A.M. Mayda, (2009); “Do Countries Free Ride on MFN?” Journal of International Economics 77(2): 137-150.

Ludema, R., and A.M. Mayda, (2013); “Do Terms-of-Trade Effects Matter for Trade Agreements? Theory and Evidence from WTO Countries.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 128(4): 1837- 1893.

Melitz, M.J., and S.J. Redding (2014); “Heterogeneous Firms and Trade.” Handbook of International Economics, 4th ed, 4: 1-54.

Rose, A., (2004); “Do We Really Know That the WTO Increases Trade?” American Economic Review 94(1): 98-114.

Tomz, M., J.L. Goldstein, and D. Rivers, (2007); “Do We Really Know That the WTO Increases Trade? Comment.”  American Economic Review 97(5): 2005-2018.

Zissimos, B., (forthcoming) The WTO and Economic Development, accepted for publication by MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass), US.


[1] See Zissimos (forthcoming).  The MIT Press have kindly allowed me to post the full text of this volume on my website until the book appears in print.  Please see the above reference for a link.

[2] See Bagwell and Staiger (1999, 2002).

[3] See Ludema and Mayda (2009, 2013).

[4] See Rose (2004), and Tomz, Goldstein and Rivers (2007).

[5] The canonical model is due to Bagwell and Staiger (1999, 2002).

[6] See Bernard, Jensen, Redding and Schott (2007), and Melitz and Redding (2014).

[7] See Dix-Carneiro (2014).