Citizen Action Monitor

‘Expert’ elites determine whose voice counts in global trade policymaking, says Canadian academic

Study shows that those who “talk the talk” are empowered, while NGOs, detractors, and critics are silenced.

No 1592 Posted by fw, February 11, 2016

Dr. Erin Hannah

Dr. Erin Hannah

This post draws on Dr. Erin Hannah’s 2016 book, NGOs and Global Trade: Non-State Voices in EU Trade Policymaking. Erin is Associate Professor of Political Science at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. She is an international political economist specializing in global governance, trade, sustainable development, poverty and inequality, global civil society, and European Union trade politics.

To ease readers into Erin’s scholarly article, I offer an abstract intended to cut to the heart of her research thesis and findings. Although not directly about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as Canadians learn more about the Liberal’s TPP consultation process, Erin’s research findings will undoubtedly become increasingly relevant.


Trade rules typically militate against progressive social values, human health, and sustainable development. NGOs hold our best hope of redressing global trade inequities. So far, however, NGOs have had limited success in achieving meaningful change; global trade deals continue to fail to produce welfare gains for all. The purpose of the author’s research is to understand the conditions under which NGOs could best challenge the status quo of the policymaking process, leading to trade policies that better serve the needs of poor. Professor Hannah chose to study trade policymaking in the EU, which reputedly had a reputation for providing opportunities for participation by NGOs. Her findings, however, tell a dismal story. Despite a solid performance reputation, NGOs have been unable to bring about substantive policy change; the best they could do amounted to “tweaking at the margins.” She attributes the NGO’s failure to make a difference in the policymaking process to “the social structure of global trade governance” – the inherent presumptions about how the world works: “Highly technical language, metaphors, myths, and common sense narratives all work to establish and uphold experts’ monopoly over trade knowledge and empower experts to serve as gatekeepers over trade policymaking. Those who ‘talk the talk’ are empowered and detractors and critics are silenced.” The author calls for more research to investigate the circumstances under which NGOs can effect change in a seemingly fixed system.

Below is a repost of professor Hannah’s article. To read her piece on the website, Global Policy Journal, click on the following linked title.


Expert Knowledge in Global Trade – Giving Voice to the Voiceless? by Erin Hannah, Global Policy Journal, February 4, 2016

NGOs global tradeThis post is part of a series that accompanies the edited volume Expert Knowledge in Global Trade (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2015). Co-editors Erin Hannah, James Scott, and Silke Trommer explore, assess, and challenge the origins, power and effects of expert knowledge in the global trade regime. For more from the series please see here.

We live in a deeply iniquitous world, where the gains from trade are distributed unevenly and where trade rules often militate against progressive social values, human health, and sustainable development. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are widely touted as our best hope for redressing these conditions in global trade. As a critical voice of the poor and marginalized, many NGOs are engaged in a global struggle for democratic norms and social justice. Yet, the potential for NGOs to bring about meaningful change is more limited than some would hope. This is a grim state of affairs given the failure of global trade to produce welfare gains for all.

My research is motivated by a desire to better understand the conditions under which NGOs can successfully politicize trade and challenge conventional wisdom about the prospects of trade to work for global development, deliver and safeguard public goods, and serve the needs of the world’s poorest people. I looked to the European Union (EU) because there we find a deeply entrenched cosmopolitan, democratic imperative—a commitment to providing channels for participation by non-state actors, and for enhancing public deliberation, transparency, inclusivity, and accountability of EU-level policymaking. In the area of external trade, non-state actors, especially NGOs, have experienced high levels of access and participation that are unmatched in other countries. For these reasons, it is a best case for assessing the impact of NGO advocacy on trade policymaking.

My research has thus far told a dismal story. NGOs have been instrumental in providing education, raising awareness, and giving a voice to broader societal concerns about proposed trade deals, both when they take advantage of formal participatory opportunities and when they protest from the streets and in the media. Yet, they have been unable to bring about substantive and normative policy change, despite unprecedented inclusion in the external trade policymaking process and wildly successful public campaigning. The changes that have resulted from NGO efforts amount to mere “tweaking at the margins”—status quo adjustments to policy that keep legal and liberal priorities intact while failing to link the governance of trade up to progressive social values, human health, or sustainable development.

This is owing to the fact that NGO advocacy is mediated by the social structure of global trade governance. Epistemes—the background knowledge, ideological and normative beliefs, and shared, intersubjective causal and evaluative assumptions about how the world works—determine who has a voice in global trade governance. NGOs succeed only when their advocacy conforms broadly to the dominant episteme. When they seek to overrule that episteme, they fail.

Where to from here?


It would be easy to view this situation as hopeless. Indeed, many would read my most recent book with equal measures of derision and despair. How can so much effort, institutional reform, advocacy, and resources be expended to such limited effect?

In my view, we cannot resign ourselves to the status quo or eschew the need for deeper reform. Indeed, given the urgency of the situation, we must investigate the circumstances under which NGO can act as transformative actors, become knowledge producers, and open up alternative institutional pathways, modes of thinking, and spaces for resistance in global governance. I am compelled to uncover the potential for NGOs to bring about more emancipatory global trade and development policies.

A central contention of my research is that the epistemic foundations or “background knowledge” of global trade determines—and disciplines—who has a voice and which agendas are prioritized in trade negotiations. De-mystifying the origins, legitimacy, and structural power of expert knowledge in global trade is a first step to identifying prospects for NGOs to loosen the shackles of received wisdom. Highly technical language, metaphors, myths, and common sense narratives all work to establish and uphold experts’ monopoly over trade knowledge and empower experts to serve as gatekeepers over trade policymaking. Those who “talk the talk” are empowered and detractors and critics are silenced.

Future research

Future research should explore the extent and circumstances under which NGOs have earned such expert status by learning and making strategic use of expert language to gain a voice in global trade. More crucially, scholars should explore whether NGOs can strategically speak expert language without reproducing the underlying perspectives and normative commitments that are inherent to it. Scholars might also look beyond the field of trade to evolving expert knowledge in other, overlapping domains such as development and environment.

NGOs have played a central role in developing policy narratives around sustainable development within the UN system. Do the ideas generated in that context impact the generation and legitimation of expert knowledge in global trade governance? Do those narratives push against or potentially transform conventional wisdom about the possibilities of trade to work for global development? Another fruitful avenue for research is whether deliberations about progressive social values, human health, or sustainable development in different political arenas, that include a broader range of NGO voices, impact discourses and ideas about global trade.

Looking at the role of NGOs as knowledge producers provides insight into the potential for NGOs to challenge and reconstitute the epistemic foundations of global trade. Elsewhere, I have explored the emergence of a particular brand of NGO knowledge producer. Responding to the failures of global trade to produce welfare gains for all and eschewing conventional advocacy or protest strategies, embedded NGOs provide legal and technical trade-related expertise across a range of issue areas that are of primary concern to developing and least developed countries. They engage in demand-driven advocacy to address injustices in global trade by institutionally empowering poor countries, and pushing an embedded liberalist agenda of inserting sustainable development priorities into global trade rules.

While embedded NGOs may improve the negotiating capacity of the least able in the multilateral trade system, they also tend to reinforce power asymmetries and patterns of dependence within both global trade itself and in the dominant discourses and forms of knowledge about global trade. The transformative potential of embedded NGOs is limited by their Western bias, their shoddy accountability performance, and their liberal economic bias. Building upon these insights, scholars should further explore the conditions under which NGOs from the global North and global South can open up intellectual space for resistance and alternative policy options in global trade. Where poor countries rely on the expertise of NGOs to develop and articulate their positions in trade negotiations and disputes, scholars need to explore options for safeguarding their autonomy.

Much more work remains to be done to realize the potential of NGOs to challenge and transform the epistemic foundations of global trade. We must find new and novel ways of exploring the conditions under which the dominant ideational imperative for further liberalization—one that uncritically accepts the notion that free trade is an end in itself that promotes welfare for all—can be resisted. The situation seems bleak in light of the findings in my most recent book, but it is too important a task to be left by the wayside or in the dustbin of despair. Progressive social values, human health and welfare, and sustainable development hang in the balance. As John Maynard Keynes once said, “It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

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