trade

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes helm at crisis-wracked World Trade Organization

Nigerian former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm after the WTO was left adrift for seven months following the sudden departure of Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo.
Nigerian former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm after the WTO was left adrift for seven months following the sudden departure of Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo. Bastien INZAURRALDE AFP

Nigerian former finance and foreign minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has taken up her role as head of the World Trade Organization. The first woman and first African to lead the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala faces daunting challenges, not least that of steering the global economy out of the crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

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The 66-year-old director-general will have to help the WTO address a range of towering challenges, including navigating through the global economic crisis triggered by the Covid pandemic.

"The WTO is too important to allow it to be slowed down, paralysed and moribund," she told the French AFP press agency after her nomination last month.

Dr. Ngozi 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, Ngozi, a development economist who spent 25 years at the World Bank, was finally agreed by the WTO's 164 members on 15 February.

From an initial eight candidates, Ngozi was the clear favourite of the two remaining in November. However, her appointment was delayed by former US president Donald Trump who blocked her nomination.

The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House made it possible for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to secure the consensus backing required to end the impasse.

A busy start to a very tough job

Ngozi faces a busy first day on the job in Geneva, since her arrival coincides with the annual meeting of the WTO's General Council.

"I am hoping to be able to listen in and see what delegations have to say, what ambassadors have to say, about the key issues," she told journalists about her expectations for her first day.

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 Covid pandemic, will be held in Geneva in December.

Questions remain as to 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 express the hope that Ngozi will inject much-needed energy, others stress she has little scope to make dramatic changes, given that WTO decisions are made by member states -- and only when they can reach consensus.

Ngozi has said she is keen to push long-blocked trade talks on fishery subsidies across the finish line in time for the ministerial conference.

A voice against protectionism, nationalism

The new WTO chief has voiced particular concern about growing protectionism and nationalism during the coronavirus crisis and insists that trade barriers must be lowered to help the world recover.

Among the issues to be discussed on Monday 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.

Ngozi chaired the Gavi vaccine alliance before running for the WTO and has made tackling the pandemic one of her priorities.

Ngozi has called for flexibility, encouraging voluntary licensing agreements.

Getting the WTO appeals court back in action

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 Appellate Body, sometimes called the supreme court of world trade, ground to a halt in December 2019 after years of relentless US opposition.

The United States, along with European countries and Canada, also want an overhaul at the WTO, believing the global organisation has not responded adequately to the trade distortions caused by China.

 

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