WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala lays out her vision for world trade

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is taking office at a critical time for the world and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Let’s start with the world: now a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, new variants hamper vaccination and pandemic control efforts, and many poor countries have yet to start administering vaccines. That some countries have hijacked resources meant for the global initiative to equitably distribute vaccines has not helped matters. Countries rich and poor have taken extraordinary measures to preserve economies and prop up households and businesses when they are able to; many hope to implement plans for recovery and reform, but are subject to bounds set by the pandemic. In the midst of all this, political systems face a reckoning: democratic backsliding in 2020 was highest since records began. No matter where one lives, climate change looms large in the either the front or back of minds.

Now to the WTO: As member states continue to quibble on foundational reforms first considered in2001 – mainly to enhance developing countries’ standing in the global trading system but also on agriculture, services, and intellectual property (IP) – some members have hedged their bets and sought alternative paths to economic success; others are simply “impatient for change”.

Some members (read China) that shirk trade reforms, or others (read the European Union) that have taken steps to modernize their own trade policies at the supposed expense of others has so frustrated some members (read the United States) that instead of them advocating for change at the WTO, they’ve launched an all-out assault on the institution itself. For over a year, the WTO has lacked a functioning Appellate Body, meaning countries have been unable to resolve trade disputes at the multilateral level (President Biden endorsed Ms. Okonjo-Iweala for DG within weeks of taking office). Still, others wonder if perhaps the WTO has fallen out of touch with the people it was meant to serve.

Nevertheless, some member states can agree on the changes they would like to see, or at the very least realize the advantages of sticking with the established multilateral trade system. It also helps that the new DG shares many of their convictions and has repeatedly exhorted the WTO not to operate as “business as usual”.

To start, member states want the WTO to play a greater role in neutralizing the Covid-19 pandemic and jumpstarting its recovery. Currently, the world has the capacity to produce 3.5 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines; there have been calls to increase its capacity to 10 billion doses; however, ideas to expand capacity have hit a wall due to intellectual property issues. One solution is to persuade manufacturing companies to allow technology transfer as work continues on securing TRIPS waivers.

There is also a desire to advance programs on market protection and access, particularly on the part of developing countries. Some of these initiatives are situated on long delineated agricultural and industrial policy fault-lines between developed and “developing” countries (although countries self-identify, there are ongoing disputes about whether some countries should still be considered “developing” as well as in clarifying what the perks of this designation are).

As fish stocks are depleted and climate change literally poisons the ocean well, member states hope to finally reach an agreement on fisheries subsidies – for Ms. Okonjo-Iweala this would ideally occur by the middle of the year.

And who could forget the plurilateral (select member) agreements, or more specifically the Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs), that have recently drawn the ire of member states such as South Africa and India who question their legality but which Ms. Okonjo-Iweala sees as positive additions to the trade system?

And finally, though there have been murmurs of addressing perennially baffling concepts such as “Women in trade” and climate change, more, it is hoped, will be done to advance these efforts at the WTO. To integrate climate change into the WTO system, the EU has proposed a “Trade and climate initiative”.

DG Okonjo- Iweala intends to hit the virtual ground running and expects member states to do the same; there is little time before the next Ministerial Conference (MC12) in December. The goals now are to take action on existing initiatives, build capacity to address the Covid-19 pandemic, and conclude fisheries negotiations. It is hoped that at MC12, member states can focus on drawing up longer-term programs for economic inclusivity, climate change, technology, and services among others.

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