The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “inclusive” as “not excluding any of the parties or groups involved in something.” By that definition, an inclusive trade policy implies an all-encompassing approach that brings together the entire range of policymakers, third sector bodies, academics and practitioners who develop, advise on, negotiate, support, monitor and assess, research, analyse, and even undertake trade. The range of interests is extensive here and covers (in no particular order) economics, business, law, political sciences, public policy, human rights, environmental sciences, agriculture, food and nutrition, and public health to name but a few.
The purpose and benefit of a truly inclusive methodology applied to a real-world issue such as trade is surely to reach beyond the boundaries of any single discipline or sector in order to share perspectives. Potentially, it should even extend to reaching occasional consensus, however limited that might be on some aspects. A commitment to transdisciplinary working in a policy arena that has the reputation for being secretive and silo-driven, and that, in the UK at least, demonstrates a reluctance to engage in due scrutiny, is both ambitious and to be welcomed. To be truly effective, though, an inclusive trade policy needs to be an active and positive working space rather than the passive, even negative, framing as might be suggested by the dictionary. That said, a common interest in trade policy does not automatically generate common understanding or create instant collaboration; each discipline has its own language, methodologies and body of evidence which requires compromise, empathy, and a willingness to consider alternative viewpoints as a start with no single discipline being dominant.
It is tempting to think that because trade is designed as a route to both improving a country’s economic growth and providing a population with goods and services that, for one reason or another, may not otherwise be available, the effects are only measurable in terms of GDP. However, estimates reveal that the UK’s trade deal with Japan might raise GDP by 0.07% or £22 per head of population, that for Australia around 0.01% – 0.02% annually or between £3-£7 per head of population and that the New Zealand deal benefits the GDP by so little, it is hardly measurable. Such underwhelming figures could lead to the conclusion that trade deals are not so much economic tools as political statements that are aimed at cementing political relationships. In the post-Brexit world that the UK now inhabits, this would certainly seem to be the case as the government desperately searches for the Brexit dividend.
Economic indicators of “success” are obviously a key consideration of the outcomes of a trade deal. However, given these limited impacts on GDP and evidence of the impacts of trade on the environment, food availability and accessibility, and labour – all of which contribute to the wider determinants of health and wellbeing – it is not unrealistic to look for an inclusive approach to trade policy that is broader than economics and a fixation on growth. It is also unrealistic not to want mitigations for such impacts. Although trade and investment agreements are not designed to be health agreements, evidence highlights the increase in using trade deals to help address “non-trade” issues with 81% of post-1990 preferential trade agreements cover at least one non-trade matter. These are also increasingly going beyond generalisations on environmental protection to tackle specific issues around gender equality.
As such, there seems to be little justification for dismissing the need to build in health protections, such as front-of-pack labelling or conducting health impact assessments of trade deals, on the grounds that it is expecting trade policy to be a panacea for all society’s ills. There is also no room for being selective over the extent to which climate change features in discussions. Carbon border adjustment mechanisms are important but so are strategic climate issues of biodiversity, deforestation, and the damage of forever chemicals. Inclusive trade must surely also look at human rights, gender equity and equality, and the conflicts of interest that are demonstrated on a daily basis by member states at the WTO who are heavily influenced by multinational corporations. In fact, the One Health approach, bringing together agriculture, animal health, biodiversity, environmental protection, food systems, and human health, provides a holistic view of the inter-related challenges that need to be addressed at a global level.
Recent press coverage debating political comments comparing GDP in the UK against that in Poland underlines the point that is being missed here. Economic growth is not the be all and end all. Far greater attention must be paid to improving health in its widest sense. The best trade deals that the UK could negotiate, therefore, are those which grow our economy whilst at the same time protecting and improving our environment, and our health and wellbeing. But to deliver them really does demand an inclusive transdisciplinary approach.