What Kind of Civil Society? Debating Trade at the WTO Public Forum

Erin Hannah, Amy Janzwood, James Scott, Rorden Wilkinson

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Since the WTO’s creation its relationship with civil society has changed significantly. In this article, we use an original dataset to: (i) plot the changes that have taken place in civil society group representation at the WTO Public Forum; and (ii) assess the significance of these changes for understandings of public interactions with the WTO. We test four hypotheses drawn from prevalent claims made in the academic and policy-facing literatures: (i) that the volume of participation in the Public Forum is determined by the ebb and flow of WTO-centered trade politics, with participation levels peaking during moments of crisis and falling away during times of stasis; (ii) that the stalling of the multilateral trade agenda has led to business interests turning away from the WTO; (iii) that the participation of NGOs in the Public Forum is also sensitive to the rhythms of trade politics; and (iv) that governments—particularly those from the global North—have begun to lose interest in the WTO and shifted attention to other arenas. We find support for hypotheses 1 and 3 but not for 2 and 4. We subsequently analyze whose voices are heard at the Public Forum and find that there has been a narrowing of the arena of trade debate over time.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of World Trade
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • trade
  • development
  • WTO
  • Civil society


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