The WTO must sell the benefits of trade to young people

Global trade could be a huge opportunity for young people struggling to find work, but the WTO must better engage with them, argues Emma McClarkin.

By Emma McClarkin

02 Mar 2015

When the WTO was founded in 1995, a young consumer lived in a very different world to today. Whether it's films, music, computer games or fashion, all of these industries have changed beyond recognition over the last 20 years. 

Today's young person is an international trader in their own right. They can sit in their bedroom and buy or sell virtually anything, from virtually anywhere in the world. They can communicate across borders as simply as communicating across a room. They can form global communities with similar interests, creating a market for every niche product. 

Global trade has transformed beyond recognition since the world trade organisation (WTO) first started down the road of trade liberalisation 20 years ago. Consumers, entrepreneurs and inventors have limitless opportunities. 

Why then, do young people know very little about the intricacies and benefits of world trade? 

"A recent poll in the EU found that those in the age range 15-24 were more positive about trade than any other age group"

In recent years we have seen vociferous opposition to free trade, making it a scapegoat for many ills. However, it appears that it is the older generations who are more anti-trade than their younger counterparts. A recent poll in the EU found that those in the age range 15-24 were more positive about trade than any other age group. Policymakers clearly need to listen more to this generation of future entrepreneurs. 

We must highlight those benefits in real terms, such as poverty reduction and new jobs, not in statistical GDP growth figures. Nowhere is this truer than among the younger people of Europe.

We know that trade is an enabler. The recent EU-Korea free trade agreement has seen EU exports to Korea increase by 30 per cent. 

So I believe it is time the WTO makes this argument in a more robust, confident way. This was the message that I took a few weeks ago to the WTO's interparliamentary meeting in Geneva. 

I believe the WTO should be engaging far more strongly in the argument and reaching out. We need young advocates for trade: human faces, not technocrats. Using tomorrow's communication tools, not yesterday's. 

Communication must also be matched by action so that the WTO meets the challenges of the modern world. Outdated trade rules are a source of frustration for young people who regularly cross borders. They seek opportunities, but are too often let down. 

A good place to begin is the recognition of professional qualifications so that young people can trade their skills across borders. 

We also need clearer information when buying products from abroad about the possible import tariffs that might be added. These nasty shocks discourage people from taking advantage of the global marketplace. If they cannot be reduced, they should at least be made transparent. 

However, the WTO can't do this alone. They can't do it without the help of national governments and their parliaments to ensure that the voice of young people is heard. And we should look at how education systems can give a greater understanding of how international trade works. 

We can sell the benefits of trade to young people. We need to communicate, educate, facilitate and inspire. 

In many ways the WTO is similar to many of the world's young entrepreneurs. It has an idea to sell to a competitive market. It must take advantage of the very same technologies and mediums that its rules have helped to create. Just like any other ambitious 20 year old, it should have faith that it has the right ideas to change the world for the better. We need to go out there and win the argument.

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