A spring in the stride

November 26, 2010

By the CUTS International Team

Almost exactly three decades ago, on 5th December 1980 the United Nations General Assembly approved the United Nations Set of Multilateral Principles and Rules for the Control of Restrictive Business Practices, better known in the international community as the UN Set on Competition Policy. Today, it stands out as one of the most successful multilateral agreement relating to economic policy. Observers feel that the credit should be given to its proponents and their vision about invoking interest among countries to be part of this global framework on competition policy, strictly on a voluntary basis. This was done by sensitising member countries of benefits from evolving a ‘common’ framework on competition, especially in the wake of enhanced international trade and commerce.

Delegates from across the world gathered in Geneva in the second week of November (2010), to review the UN Set on Competition Policy. This is a ritual that happens once every five years, and is considered as one of the biggest congregation of countries (and practitioners) with an interest in competition law reforms. The fact that this review (sixth) recorded a record participation of the highest number of participants testifies to the growing interest among countries on the subject of competition policy and law, and especially its linkage with socio-economic development.

The credit goes to the organisers, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) not only for being able to facilitate the participation of delegates from across the world in this event in such numbers; but also for being able to educate especially the ‘southern’ countries about the linkage between competition enforcement and attainment of development outcomes, which they have pursued vigorously across the globe. Various other international agencies such as the OECD, World Bank, and ICN and organisations such as CUTS, including development partners such as DFID and IDRC have also been involved in this crusade on competition reforms – but UNCTAD’s role has really been that of a leader when it comes to assisting competition agencies in developing countries with technical assistance and expertise on competition law & policy and consumer policy issues.

It is probably such encouragement from UNCTAD and other international organisations which has progressively strengthened the confidence of developing countries to engage properly in debates on competition enforcement issues with their counterparts from developed countries. Interventions and participation in discussions by delegates from the developing countries over the five days in Geneva was definitely one of the major highlights of the Sixth Review Conference. It clearly demonstrates the growth in ability of a large number of developing (and least developed) countries not only in defending their positions on competition law & policy reforms, but also in rallying support from the international community for greater attention to domestic competition and consumer reforms in the developing world.

It is critical that other international competition platforms like the Global Forum on Competition (organised by the OECD), International Competition Network and even the newly established BRIC Competition Conference, etc. recognize this enhancement in confidence of the ‘southern’ countries in contributing meaningfully to international discourses on competition policy and law issues.

Such enthusiastic participation of the delegates from the developing countries ensured that they were able to make their submissions loud and clear, especially challenges that they face in implementing their national competition regimes and seek guidance from their counterparts from developed countries, with much greater experience of competition enforcement. A ‘peer review’ process (that has now been institutionalized by UNCTAD as an annual activity) involving a candid assessment of strengths and weaknesses of Armenia’s competition regime ensured that there was such free flowing exchange of information and knowledge in this conference. Countries such as Kenya that have undergone this exercise admitted that the ‘peer review’ process has been extremely useful in helping them evolve a ‘roadmap’ for competition enforcement, drawing from the experience of other countries/experts.

That the focus of much of the plenary sessions was on issues pertaining to competition reforms in the developing world can be well-understood from the fact that two issues were mainly highlighted in these discussions. Firstly, international cooperation on competition and secondly the need to broach competition reforms in the national development agenda of countries.

There is growing recognition among developing countries’ competition agencies that the lack of capacity on competition enforcement that a majority of them are faced with can be addressed through the process of international cooperation on competition. There can be various ways in which such a process of international cooperation can be evolved, including but not limited to – exchange of information/knowledge, advice and technical assistance, capacity building support, cooperation on a case-to-case basis, etc.

Experience from regions where such cooperation has been achieved indicates that forging cooperation at the regional level has been beneficial on several counts. One of the reasons could be the similarities in the contour of competition legislation among countries within a region, which makes cooperation easy. It has also been noticed that often informal interactions/networks promote greater cooperation among members, rather than formal modes of cooperation. There was consensus that often ‘protection of confidentiality of information’ is a bone of contention in cooperation on competition, and needs to be properly sorted out, possibly through informal means.

The other issue that reverberated in several sessions was the importance of integrating competition reforms in the national agenda, especially its merit for developing countries. A suggested way to get attention of national policymakers and parliamentarians was to demonstrate benefits from competition reforms in sectors like food, public procurement to state actors, and to gain their patronage and support for taking the competition agenda forward in developing countries.

It is important, that developing countries maintain their level of enthusiasm for competition reforms – and engage more meaningfully with the stakeholders, particularly civil society organizations and consumer groups to gain support for the process of domestic competition reforms. There is sufficient information available in literature of how countries have engaged in this exercise, when they started off – and can serve as source of reference for other countries. The role of UNCTAD, other international organisations working on competition and competition agencies from developed countries is equally important for nurturing creation of fair markets across the developed world. All these can assist countries in addressing challenges towards evolving an enabling environment, which helps balancing the twin objectives of consumer protection and industrial promotion.