Okonjo-Iweala Unfolds Plans to Rejuvenate WTO

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Obinna Chima and Dike Onwuamaeze

Nigeria’s candidate for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, wednesday assured member-countries that if given the job, she will rejuvenate WTO.

Okonjo-Iweala, who spoke during a media briefing after making a presentation to the General Council of the WTO, however, added that she would ensure that her plans for the Geneva-based institute are achieved by proactively working with member countries.

“The WTO DG has no direct decision-making authority. But the WTO DG can work to make things move along with influence and that influence can be proactive.

“And that is the kind of DG that I intend to be if I am selected; to proactively work with members, to deliver outcomes, starting with the next ministerial, to show that the WTO is back and that the WTO is rejuvenated. So, I intend to be a proactively supportive DG,” she said.

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The former Managing Director (Operations) of the World Bank added: “The organisation has never had a woman or an African as DG, but my insistence is that choosing a DG for WTO should be on merit.

“The best person to lead the institution should be chosen. Now I will say to them, if that person happens to be a woman, let it be, if she happens to be an African, so be it,” she said.

While noting that micro, small and medium scale enterprises (MSMEs) have been bruised by the COVID-19, she stressed the need for discussions on how to integrate such businesses in the multilateral trading system, which is very important.

According to her, “One crucial thing arising from COVID-19 and the impact it has had on economic growth and the predicted contraction of the world economy and economies around the world is that MSMEs have been badly affected. So, they need liquidity.

“So, we need to make sure that for them to survive, they should have adequate liquidity to keep their businesses going. My worry is that there have been countries globally who have been able to make this liquidity available to their MSMEs and there are others, like many developing countries and least developed countries who have not.

“And, one of my roles as African Union envoy, with my other five colleagues, has been to see how we can facilitate and encourage additional resources from outside and inside to these MSMEs, so that they can regain their position and be able to stand, not only to keep jobs but to thrive in the future and create more jobs.

“So, I am very keen. I think it is a very important sector and the WTO would work hard to make sure such types of enterprises are supported.”

Okonjo-Iweala, who is Nigeria’s two-term former Minister of Finance, faulted the insinuation that she doesn’t have experience in trade negotiations, saying: “That is a totally wrong notion.”

She explained: “I have paid respect to my competitors because that is my nature. I do not criticise other people. I respect them. The competitors who are saying that I am not a trade expert are wrong. I am a development economist and you cannot do that without looking at trade, which is an essential part of development.

“So, I have been doing it. My whole career at the World Bank, I was working on trade policy reform in middle and low-income countries at the bank. As finance minister, the customs service in my country reported to me. And that is all about trade facilitation.”

Responding to a question on what she would be saying to the United States President Donald Trump or the US president-elect to convince the country not to exit the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala, said: “I would say to the president that the WTO delivered for all countries,
including the United States, in the past. It is because of the multilateral rules-based trading system that we have had prosperity and the lifting of millions out of poverty and it has brought about shared prosperity and we could do it again.
“I would say to him, where the trading system has failed, we need to fix it so that it can be more inclusive and can benefit more people.

“And that truly, it’s not the time now to leave the WTO that matters. We need an institution that can promote a rules-based system. I would also say to him – remember the trade wars of the past, we don’t want that. We want peace, security and stability.
“That is why the WTO is needed with its ability to arbitrate disputes among members. So, don’t leave now, let’s try to fix what needs fixing and if we didn’t have the WTO, we would have to invent it.”

Also responding to a THISDAY question on what she would do to ensure that an agreement is reached on e-commerce by WTO members, Okonjo-Iweala said: “I happen to believe that e-commerce and digital economy are tremendous and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown it. People are now buying online, trading online. They are going to school online.

“So this is the wave of the future. But we have to pay attention to something very difficult from developing and least developed countries and this is the digital divide. They cannot participate in it unless we find a way to take care of this digital divide. They cannot be left out.

“Even people from our rural areas cannot be left out. I will be very keen, if I become the WTO DG, to see what bundle of resources working for multinationals institutions could we put together to help countries that do not have this infrastructure to get it so that they can work with e-commerce.

“That will advance negotiations because if you look at those not participating, a lot of them are from developing countries. Their thinking is what is in it for me? I do not even have the infrastructure. Why should I be negotiating on e-commerce? Why should I be agreeing to rules that I am not equipped or competent to discuss this time? So, we must bite the bullet and help them to get the infrastructure. And I think that we need to move and give them that assurance and then move the e-commerce negotiations along the line where all members can agree on the rules because this is the wave of the 21st century.”

She said as a minister in Nigeria, she helped the country on trade negotiations with the then minister of trade on the ECOWAS Common External Tariffs.

“So, I do not know how much trade you can have than that. Those who are saying that I do not have trade experience are mistaken. I think that the qualities I have are even better because I combine development economics with trade knowledge along with finance.
“And you need those combinations of skills to lead the WTO. I am confident that I have the skills that I needed. This is familiar territory to me and not an alien world. I am a trade person,” she stated.

Considering the headwinds in the global economy due to the pandemic, Okonjo-Iweala suggested the need for a rapid decision on who the next DG of the WTO should be.

She added: “Let me start by saying that it is up to the members to make a decision as to when they want the next WTO DG. But I would hope that it would be a rapid decision. Why? Not from personal reasons, but from the fact that the world is at a very uncertain juncture and we don’t know the trajectory of this pandemic.

“We don’t know what is going to happen and therefore an institution as important as the WTO should have leadership as quickly as possible, to be able to make sure that the WTO contributes what it can to the multilateral trading system and that in turn contributes to the recovery of the world economy.”

Commenting on her strategy to address trade challenges that could arise from the COVID-19, she explained that being privileged to be the Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and some other global bodies have exposed her to issues around finding solutions to ameliorating the impact of the pandemic.

“If I become the DG, I will have a very strong collaboration with the tool accelerators like the WHO to make sure that there are no barriers, no restrictions on the availability of these vaccines. One respecting the intellectual property rights of those who have manufactured the vaccines, the world should be able to come to the point where mechanisms are put in place to make those vaccines available.

“And the world trading system should be a facilitator of this and not an impediment. That will be mean combining the role of the DG of the WTO with the experience I have had from Gavi to ensure this because I think it is critical that everyone has access to life-saving vaccines,” she said.

Also commenting on why it is difficult for Africa to back one candidate, she said: “I think that that question is better answered by the African Union. But let me repeat again that I think it is an honour to have three qualified candidates from my continent.

“We should not necessarily see it as a bad thing. I have respect for my competitors from all continents for the job of the WTO and I believe that the WTO members should select on merit. Of course, I will love it if that comes from Africa because Africa has never had a turn.

“I will love it if it is a woman because a woman has never and of course I would love it if it were me. Because I think that I am qualified to lead. I have all the attributes the WTO needs for leadership. It needs someone able to bring a bundle of politics, political ability and ability to reach decision-makers. International contacts I have.

“My managerial ability that I have from my long years in multilateral organisations like the World Bank, the ability to forge consensus, to negotiate a reform [are there for all to see]. I have a reputation established as a strong reformer both at the World Bank and also in my country.”

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