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A Q&A on Sidley’s Trade for Development Initiative


In March 2018, Sidley’s Geneva office founded the Trade for Development Initiative, a firmwide pro bono project that helps government officials in developing and least-developed countries, as well as trade associations and nongovernmental organizations, achieve sustainable and inclusive development in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Since the project’s launch, lawyers, economists, and trainees across seven Sidley offices have advised a diverse range of clients on how to better leverage international legal frameworks, with a particular focus on trade agreements. We recently spoke with the Trade for Development Initiative’s Director Colette van der Ven and Partner Iain Sandford, who discussed the portfolio of work the project has generated and how it continues to thrive during the global pandemic.

What inspired the creation of the Trade for Development Initiative?

IS: The Trade for Development Initiative harnesses the strengths of Sidley’s lawyers while making an impact on sustainable development. We are able to leverage our particular skills and experience on behalf of governments, industries, and enterprises that need them but don’t have capacity to pay market-level fees for our work.

CV: In Geneva and globally, Sidley has a very strong trade practice. At the same time, we observed there was a dearth in advisory services that provided developing countries with customized, strategic advice on trade policy and related issues. Sidley already had the Emerging Enterprises Pro Bono Program, which focuses on providing legal advice to small businesses in developing countries. We wanted to complement that initiative in a way that would allow us to give back by using our experience as trade lawyers to give tailored support to help clients achieve their sustainable development objectives.

Are other law firms doing similar work in this area, to your knowledge?

CV: Our program really stands out. While other law firms provide pro bono legal assistance to developing country governments, the focus on trade agreements and trade policy makes our program different. Our angle on the work is also unique. We advise governments and trade associations on how to use trade as a lever to accomplish their sustainable development objectives, covering policy questions and political strategy in the process. For example, when representing Mauritius in a safeguards matter, we focused not only on the legality of the safeguard in question under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Safeguards Agreement, but also on diplomatic strategies Mauritius could use to resolve the matter.

Is there often an intersection of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues with the projects that you advise on under the Trade for Development Initiative?

CV: For a long time, there existed a wide gap between trade and environmental and social considerations. We are at a moment where environmental, social, and trade considerations are becoming more closely linked, with trade officials increasingly taking into account social and sustainability issues, and environmentalists seeking to advance their objectives by using trade agreements as a lever. In this context, we developed a partnership with the International Institute of Sustainable Development, a key player in the trade and sustainability discussions in Geneva and beyond. Part of our work with them has focused on the ongoing fisheries negotiations at the WTO.

ESG issues also feature in our work in a different way: we have been advising two of our clients, the governments of Bhutan and Bangladesh, on how they can strategically position themselves as they graduate from least-developed country status and lose duty free market access into the EU market. If a country complies with a number of ESG treaties — in addition to a number of other requirements — it is eligible to apply to a different type of preferential market access scheme when exporting to the EU, named GSP+. We are advising Bhutan and Bangladesh on where they stand in terms of ratification of some of those ESG conventions and what the hurdles are.

I read that Bhutan’s economic development model is focused on “national happiness and sustainable growth.” How do you advise a country whose emphasis is essentially counter to economic growth?

CV: Bhutan is unique in so many ways. It is a very isolated place, not really connected to the globalized world as we know it. Their national happiness index stems from their Buddhist approach of looking at life holistically, where economic considerations should be in harmony with nature as opposed to going against it.

They also recognize the reality of their situation. Bhutan is situated between China and India, and they understand that they cannot isolate themselves forever. We ran a study on which products could be competitive for them in the EU market. They also wanted to make sure that consumers who shop online are protected, so we reviewed their draft regulations and compared that to international best practices. As we advise developing countries, it is very important to understand the context, because the advice for Bhutan will be different than Bangladesh, for example.

IS: I agree with Colette that the particular national context is really important when you’re thinking about the development model, trade opportunities, and application of international rules to a particular country. There are dimensions of the existing trade rules and international frameworks that can be beneficial for the development pathway of a country like Bhutan.

For instance, I supervised a project for one of our teams where we helped Bhutan with its industrial design legislation. The reforms that they were going through were partly in anticipation of joining the WTO. They were focused on creating opportunities for people and, importantly, making sure that creations and innovations from Bhutan are properly protected, including their traditional cultural expressions.

So, even within a context that measures gross national happiness rather than gross national product, there is still a role for international economic engagement and protection of people’s rights. The super power that Sidley brings as a law firm is our ability is to zoom in on these kinds of regulatory, compliance, and economic issues and provide our clients with practical advice that helps them achieve their goals — which each country defines for itself — in the best way.

How has Sidley’s work on this program been impacted by the pandemic?

CV: There have been a number of ways in which our work has been impacted by the pandemic. On the one hand, there is the impact on our clients: governments have been preoccupied with the immediate demands and emergencies caused by the pandemic, as opposed to focusing on strategic approaches to trade policy, for instance. This has directly impacted job viability for the workforce of one of our clients in particular, the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. They represent the Bangladeshi garment workers, comprising mostly women, which has been suffering due to declined demand in garments as a result of the pandemic.

IS: We also helped the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) on international trade law and compliance with respect to measures that they were considering as a region for distribution of PPE and other COVID-related essential products. Export and import restrictions around the world have come into sharp focus due to the pandemic. When the OECS was looking at the various regional distribution options, they wanted to ensure that it was done fairly, but also in a way that complied with the international rules.

More generally, I worry that the pandemic will affect implementation of some of the work that we have done. Some of the more ambitious projects we’ve been working on involve regional or national law reforms and setting up particular economic structures. These are challenging projects that require buy-in from multiple stakeholders. I worry that with the pandemic, it will be harder to keep up the momentum to make sure that we are not only coming up with great ideas for our clients, but that we are actually helping them to implement plans to achieve the goals that they’ve set. Ultimately, we want to have a positive impact — that requires action, not just advice or ideas.


“Sidley’s response and assistance has been tremendously beneficial and timely. The Sidley team produced two memos on SEZs – one setting out the different SEZ models adopted globally, and another more focused on best practices for building SEZs in different industries. In November 2019, a Sidley professional travelled to Guyana and presented this work to trade and development professionals. The importance and appreciation of the Sidley contribution is well represented by its continued engagement by the Government of Guyana.”

- Ambassador Deep Ford, Former Guyana Ambassador to United Nations and other International Organizations at Geneva

Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS)

“Allow me to offer my thanks to you for the great work produced … through the Pro Bono program. The program has supported the OECS Commission and our Member States in a number of key areas of work, including through the development of an analytical piece that provides clear guidance on harmonizing the IP architecture across my region. This ground-breaking work portends the creation of a new approach to the protection, registration, and further monetization of IP rights. Also of note is your ad hoc support during the selection process for the WTO Director General. ...The Sidley Trade for Development Program is best in class and has provided measurable benefits.”

- Stephen Fevrier, Ambassador to the Permanent Delegation to the United Nations of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States