Volume 52 (2018) / Issue 1
Since the WTO’s creation its relationship with civil society has changed significantly. In this article, we use an original dataset to: (1) plot the changes that have taken place in civil society group representation at the WTO Public Forum; and (2) 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: (1) that the volume of participation in the Public Forum is determined by the ebb and flow of WTO-centred trade politics, with participation levels peaking during moments of crisis and falling away during times of stasis; (2) that the stalling of the multilateral trade agenda has led to business interests turning away from the WTO; (3) that the participation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the Public Forum is also sensitive to the rhythms of trade politics; and (4) 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 one and three but not for two and four. We subsequently analyse whose voices are heard at the Public Forum and find that there has been a narrowing of the arena of trade debate over time.
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