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[WebDebate #12 summary] Standardisation: Practical solutions for strained negotiations, or an arena for realpolitik?

Published on 07 May 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

Our May WebDebate looked at standards as tools for managing international relations and discussed the process of negotiating and implementing the standards. Standards define our everyday lives in ways most people do not even realise. It is important to understand what standardisation is, that a standard can shape our habits and make life much easier. At the same time, we also need to realise that agreeing on a standard is sometimes a process that needs to reconcile different interests. The speaker at the WebDebate was Ms Lorenza Jachia, Secretary to the UNECE Working Party on Regulatory Cooperation and Standardization Policies. The moderator was Dr Katharina E Höne, Project Manager and Researcher at DiploFoundation.

Jachia defined a standard as an ‘agreed way of doing something’, and that ‘something’ refers to products, services and processes. At the very beginning of her presentation, Jachia explained the part standards play in our day-to-day lives. The first thing people do when they wake up is brush their teeth. We are all able to complete this simple activity precisely because we can rely on standards that ensure, for example, that toothpaste is of good quality, safe, and effective. 

The following debate was centred around three points. The first point dealt with the importance of standardisation: how it facilitates our daily lives and – as in the ‘tooth brushing example’ – how it supports sustainable development. Examples illustrated how standards facilitate international trade and support environmental sustainability. Höne explained that standardisation also helps us track our progress in different areas because it establishes internationally recognised parameters and indicators.

The second point dealt with the nature of standards. The online participants engaged in a debate on whether standards are neutral, logical, and easy to agree on. All these qualities depend on the process of developing standards. Although state and non-state actors can participate in the process of standardisation, some have a bigger say and are able to have greater influence on decisions. On the one hand, the multistakeholder approach to setting standards is more inclusive and, most likely, leads to standards that are more universal and therefore have a greater chance of success. On the other hand, the actual impact of small and developing countries and non-state actors can have is often small. Further, even when there are many actors present, one single powerful actor can still dominate the negotiation process. Another possible disadvantage of the multistakeholder approach is that we might end up with a watered-down standard for the sake of balancing a multiplicity of positions.

The third point is closely connected to the second point, and it refers to the main question at hand – how do standards help with solutions? Jachia’s experience of working in a technical committee allowed her to conclude that it is, at times, difficult to reach consensus, because of the many competing interests involved in the decision-making process. At this point of the debate, the concept of realpolitik was explained in greater detail and the participants provided their own input on this subject matter. Although standards help move political debates forward by enabling opposing interests to reach a solution, we need to keep in mind that these solutions might still be biased. One concern that was raised was that big transnational corporations oftentimes manage to impose their own interests and disregard others.

However, it is important to note that the main goal of a standard is to benefit the actors it applies to. For example, some standards are designed to make consumer products safer and user-friendly, others to increase the efficiency of production, and others to manage environmental responsibilities. Because needs change and technological progress makes specifications obsolete, all international standards have a shelf life and are regularly reviewed. The objective of the revision is to make sure that the standards respond well to the current needs of the marketplace.

The WebDebate offered a very diverse and lively discussion. Participants with a wide range of professional backgrounds posed questions and made comments. The participants enriched the debate by providing various insights, such as the fact that the uptake of standards is usually more challenging than their establishment. Jachia was open to answering participants’ questions and able to give great examples that elucidated the main topic of the May WebDebate further. Having used the Sustainable Development Goals as an example, Jachia managed to explain the topic in terms of international relations and diplomacy. Without standards, dealing with modern international problems and challenges would be unimaginable. It is true that the purpose of standards is to improve negotiations and the decision-making process. However, it is also useful to investigate to what extent a standard is neutral and objective and to what extent it reflects particular interests.  

Virdzinija Saveska is a junior associate at DiploFoundation. Her main interests are international security and peace studies. She is a student of International Politics at the University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Science.

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