Our May WebDebate looked at standards as tools to manage international relations and also discussed the process of negotiating and implementing standards. Standards define our everyday lives in ways most people do not even realize. It is important to understand what standardization is so as to know that a standard can shape your habits and make your life much easier. At the same time, we also need to realize that agreeing on a standard is sometimes a process that needs to reconcile different interests. The speaker at this debate was Mrs. Lorenza Jachia, Secretary to the UNECE Working Party on Regulatory Cooperation and Standardization Policies. The moderator was Katharina E. Höne, Project Manager and Researcher at DiploFoundation.
Jachia defined a standard as an ‘agreed way of doing something’ and the ‘something’ refers to products, services and processes. At the very beginning of her presentation, Jachia highlighted how standards play into our day-to-day lives. The first thing people do when they wake up is to brush their teeth. We are all able to complete this simple activity safely precisely because of standards.
The following debate was centered on three points. The first point dealt with the importance and effect of standardization on our daily lives and the economy. Apart from the toothpaste example, which applies to consumers, standardization affects economies. In most cases, standardization has a positive influence on the economy as a whole. This fact especially applies to international standards, because they advance and expedite international trade. Höne explained that standardization also helps us track our progress in different areas because they establish internationally recognized 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 standardization, some of them have a bigger say and are able to have greater influence on decisions. On the one hand, the multi-stakeholder 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. Even when there are many actors present, one actor can still dominate the negotiation process. Another possible disadvantage of the multi-stakeholder 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 often very 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 forward political debates 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 other economic processes. That is why all ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 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 May WebDebate was very lively because of the many questions and comments by the participants, who came from a range of professional backgrounds and, therefore, offered many different perspectives. The participants enriched the debate by providing many insights such as the fact that the uptake of standards is usually more challenging than their establishment. Jachia was open to answering participant 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.