After a considerable delay the contentious selection of the Director General of World Trade Organistion (WTO) was ultimately finalised. The 66-year-old Nigerian former finance minister, Ngozi Okionio-Iweala takes the helm after the WTO was left adrift for seven months following the sudden departure of Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo last August, a year ahead of schedule. Following a lengthy selection process, development economist Okonjo-Iweala, who spent 25 years at the World Bank was finally anointed by the WTO’s 164 members on 15 February 2021. The WTO’s 164 members unanimously selected her to serve a four-year term as director general. Okonjo-Iweala will take over the institution, with its budget of $220m and staff of 650, at a critical time.
After four years of bruising battles between Washington and Beijing over protectionist tariffs and import quotas that badly damaged global trade, Okonjo-Iweala is expected to set about bridging a growing divide between the administrations running the world’s first and second largest economies. Speaking after her appointment, Okonjo-Iweala said her top priority was to ensure the WTO does more to address the coronavirus pandemic, saying members should accelerate efforts to lift export restrictions slowing trade in needed medicines and supplies, and warned of the danger posed by “vaccine nationalism”.
Eight candidates had put themselves forward to replace the outgoing chief, Roberto Azevedo, including the UK’s former trade minister Liam Fox. Okonjo-Iweala remained in the race despite Donald Trump telling the WTO he would veto her appointment. Ahead of the vote for a new boss, Trump blocked the WTO from appointing appeal judges to arbitrate in disputes, hampering the organisation’s ability to resolve claims of trade abuses. Joe Biden is known to want greater co-operation at an international level and to reject his predecessors reliance on bilateral confrontations to win trade battles. However, he is under pressure from Congress to maintain a hostile stance on China and is likely to want the WTO to tackle claims of trade abuses by Beijing.
Okonjo-Iweala has previously said the Americans were understandably aggrieved by the lack of a level playing field in international trade and as director general she would seek to take onboard their concerns. Her dual US citizenship means she is also the first American to hold the organisation’s top job. As a two-time finance minister in Nigeria she gained a reputation as a tough negotiator during talks to reduce the country’s debts. That reputation was consolidated when securing more money for grants and soft loans to poor countries while No 2 at the World Bank. The in-tray at the WTO includes plans for a multilateral accord to curb harmful fishing subsidies and re-appointing judges to fill vacant posts on the appeals panel.
There is also an outstanding negotiation to find agreement on rules governing the $26 trillion global e-commerce marketplace which many countries resist due to the dominance of US technology companies Google, Facebook and Amazon. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes over the World Trade Organisation amid hopes that she will spur the beleaguered body into addressing its towering challenges, including the pandemic-fuelled global economic crisis.
After her selection the new DG stated that the WTO is too important to allow it to be slowed down, paralysed and rendered moribund. She is hitting the ground running, with her first day on the job in Geneva coinciding with the annual meeting of WTO’s General Council. Delegates are expected to agree that the organisation’s next ministerial conference, which had been scheduled for last year but was postponed due to the pandemic, will be held in Geneva in December. The question remains whether the new WTO chief, considered a strong-willed trailblazer, will be able to mould the organisation in her image before then.
While some observers voice hope that Okonjo-Iweala will inject much-needed energy, others stress she has little wiggle room to make dramatic change, given that WTO decisions are made by member states — and only when they can reach consensus. One of her first tasks will be to nominate four new deputy directors to help recharge the organisation’s negotiating mechanisms.
Okonjo-Iweala has said that one of her main objectives is to push long-blocked trade talks on fishery subsidies across the finish line in time for the ministerial conference, but with negotiations dragging on, that could be a tough sell. And in the midst of a global economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, she has plenty of other challenges on her plate. Okonjo-Iweala has voiced concern about growing protectionism and nationalism during the coronavirus crisis and insists trade barriers must be lowered to help the world recover.
Among the issues is a controversial push for the WTO to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Dozens of nations say this would help boost production and access and would rein in the pandemic sooner, but the notion has been fiercely rejected by pharmaceutical giants and the countries that host them. Another daunting challenge facing the new director-general will be following through on her vow to breathe life back into the appeals branch of the WTO’s dispute settlement system. The United States, along with European countries and Canada, want an overhaul at the WTO, believing it has not responded correctly to the trade distortions caused by China. TW