The new director-general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, spoke to journalists virtually on Monday shortly after her emergence as the first female and African director-general of the World Trade Organization.
She spoke about what her priorities would be at a time of a global health crisis caused by the coronavirus, and the politics of her initial rejection by the Trump administration of the United States. PREMIUM TIMES‘ Mary Izuaka transcribed the interview released by the WTO.
Okonjo-Iweala: Good day to everyone wherever you are around the world. I want to thank you for being here. Let me say that a few short minutes ago the general council of the WTO agreed by consensus on my selection as the seventh director-general of this organisation I am deeply honoured and I am humbled by the support I have received from WTO members.
I will say that it’s worth exciting to be here because I take the reigns of the WTO at a time of great uncertainty and challenge.
We have the twin side of the pandemic, the health side and the economic side which is challenging so many including challenging livelihoods around the world and it has hurt economic diversification in many parts of the world.
The WTO at this point in time is also facing so many challenges and it’s clear to me that deep and wide-ranging reforms are needed and as I said before it can not be business as usual at the WTO we need to look at the priorities and I will speak to them in a moment.
Our priorities, we need to modernize our rules, we need to look at what the WTO can contribute to some of the present situations of the pandemic, we need to look at our procedures.
So now, I’m part of the institution; so much need to be done that is why I talked about deep and wide-ranging reform but of course, it will not be easy because we also have the issue of lack of trust among members which has built up over time, not just US and China or US and EU as many people want to say but also between developing and developed countries members and we need to work through that if we are to achieve the reforms that the WTO needs to achieve in order to be relevant in this modern age.
Trade is very important, and trade makes up 60 per cent of GDP. It has grown by thousands of percentage points over time, and it’s very important if we are also to come out of this pandemic both in terms of helping make sure there is a fewer flow in medical goods and supply to deal with the public health emergency and also for the economic revival and sustainability recovery of the globe. Without trade, it cannot happen. Of course GDP growth contributes to trade, but also looking at some trade rules and liberalisation of trade can also contribute to faster GDP growth.
So, I think trade is very important for more size and when we look at the membership of the WTO we must be mindful that whatever we do will benefit all members, not just big members or middle-sized but also small ones and small island economies. I think this is very important.
Now, let me speak very quickly to some of the priorities as I see them that I shared with the general council, I think first and foremost we need to focus on the issue of COVID-19 and what can the WTO do to contribute to solutions?
We need to work with the WHO, all these organisations that are trying to accelerate supplies and vaccines to poor countries.
The WTO can look at export restrictions and prohibition from members, the International Trade Centre says that almost a hundred members have this restriction and prohibition. How can we lift them and be very transparent about lifting them temporarily so that there will be a fewer flow of goods?
Secondly, how can we also encourage finding what they call the third way, in which vaccines can be manufactured in many more countries while taking care that we don’t discourage research and innovation, which link to intellectual property rights. So this is an area of work. Then we have the issue of the dispute settlement system which people call the jewel in the crown in the WTO.
There are no points really agreeing on more rules when the only place in the world where countries can bring trade dispute does not work is paralysed, so it is a priority to really reform that and take into account the inputs of all members to make sure we come up with the dispute settlement system that works for all.
There is a need to modernise the rules of the WTO and bring them up to twenty-first-century issues. What do I mean by that? We have to look at the digital economy which has become so prominent during this pandemic, e-commerce is key and is going to grow in lift and ban as we move on.
WTO does not presently have a rule that underpins e-commerce, so how to put those rules in place to complete the negotiations will be very important. There are other types of negotiation facilitation, domestic services regulations, etc. These all need to be looked at and we have a good chance of trying to come great with some of them.
I must mention fishery subsidy negotiation which is key. Actually, that is perhaps one of the federal advances, as of now and it speaks to both sustainability of our oceans. it helps fulfill one of the SDG’s and there is a good chance that at MC12 which is a top priority for all the members.
How do we have a ministerial, the next ministerial 12 that is successful, it provides the venue to conclude on some of these issues have talked about, agreeing about how to stop the pandemic even set a framework for future pandemics, agreeing on the fishery subsidy negotiations ramping that up and the various other negotiations I mentioned.
There is one thing that is very important as a priority to me is also, the fact that e-commerce will help us be more inclusive of women and micro medium, and small enterprises. Trade is about people and we have to constantly keep that in front. How do we bring those who have been excluded or marginalised like women, owners of micro medium, and small enterprises into the main scheme? This is also important and then let me just mention quickly, traditional issues like agriculture should not be forgotten, issues of industrial subsidy, agriculture subsidy, special and differential treatment these are all very difficult areas down the line we will definitely need to look into.
The ways that the bodies of the WTO work to make them much more efficient I have said in my speech that we need to look at procedures for appointing the director-general, I think I’m, in a good shape having just been named to talk a little bit and suggest that.
Issues of how we make sure consensus does not stand in the way of innovation at the organisation and so on, a lot to do but these were some of the things I pointed out as priority areas.
So let me stop it there. I should also perhaps end by saying strengthening of the secretariat; the secretariat of the WTO has very talented staffs among the best you can find in the world of trade, so how to help them work better and support members better these are some of the things that I think we should be looking at. Thank you.
What additional way or responsibility do you feel, you coming into this position as the first woman and first African ever to hold the position of the DG. How can you describe the emotions you felt when the USA administration of former USA, President Donald Trump, sought to block your appointment despite the clear mandate you enjoyed from the majority of powers?
Okonjo-Iweala: In two parts, if I take the later part first because it happened earlier. I think I was quite surprised when that came at the decision-making meeting because there had been no indication previously that there was any problem with the US. I had two very good interviews with the authorities in the administration, so it was a surprise. But you know that is the way life works and when things happen you take them in your stride and you move on and so it was absolutely wonderful when the Biden Harris administration came in and broke that logjam to join the consensus and gave me such a strong endorsement to my candidacy that has set a very good stage and to join the other 163 members to endorse the candidacy, I think it’s wonderful.
With respect to how do I feel, I do feel an additional burden, I can’t lie about that being the first woman and the first African means I will really have to perform. I’ve always said these are wonderful things, it is jam-breaking. All credit to members for electing me and making real history, but the bottom line is that if I want to really make Africa and women proud, I have to produce results and that is what my mind desires now. How do we work together with members to get better results?
How do you propose to set about breaking the logjam in the dispute settlement mechanisms that are key to getting into WTO upon running again? Secondly, 20 years ago this year the WTO started developing around the trade, which is never really completed, what can you do to revive back and to give the developing countries the same WTO trade.
Okonjo-Iweala: So with respect to the logjam in dispute settlement, this is vital, as I said before this is really the key jewel in the crown of the WTO because it’s the only place in the world that countries can bring trade dispute that they have with each other; so it is imperative. How do we go about it? I think the one good thing that I will tell you is that every member agrees that the dispute settlement systems need reform.
So that is already a good starting base from developing to developed countries to the United States to China, India, EU, everyone agrees. So, I think that’s what we need to do but they have various opinions about what types of reforms that are needed.
About how I will start about it? It’s to first try to work with members to bring out their issues with respect to the dispute settlement system, what are those reforms, what are the challenges they see, and what are those reforms they will like to see? Of course, there have been some proposals in the past and I said in my speech perhaps some of those proposals will be the ones that we will build on.
With respect to the body, I think that is why most of the questions arise. So I will flesh out the reforms and put them together, get members to agree on these and once they agree that these are the start-up reforms we put together, work programmes to implement those reforms and I hope we can take this to the Ministerial 12 which is estimated to take place by the end of the year.
So we have a few months to try to work this and then I think it will take some time to really work it all out, but at least we should get a good start before the ministerial. The second issue is the development round. Yes, I think the fact that the development round was never completed is also a little bit at the bottom of the lack of trust between developed and developing countries because the developing countries perhaps feel this was for them and it was never completed.
I think what we need to do is to look at some possible areas where progress will still be made with respect to agriculture issues, for instance, public stockholding for food security agreeing on that, so there are few issues that I think should be picked up that are of concern to the developing countries and we can work on those under the agriculture mandate.
What form of support should African countries expect from you in advertising the African continent of free trade agreement during your mandate?
Okonjo-Iweala: Thank you very much for that is a very important question. Of course, as the DG, and the DG for all members I must work to advance the interest of every single member. Africa is at a unique juncture where it implementing one of the largest free trade agreements in the world and it has a long-term vision of perhaps having a complete free trade area on the continent and so the issue is where is the sticking point, where can the WTO be useful? well, I want to say immediately that the WTO rules and WTO institution have been an inspiration for the design of part of the African continental free trade agreement, so the WTO has already learned its body of institutional knowledge and wisdom to help design this. But building on that we need to see what are the capacity constraints in implementing this, can we use aid for trade to support the secretariat of the AfCFTA? Can we find technical assistance where is needed to help break any logjam?
The second way the WTO is working on is an investment facilitation agreement. I think working, pushing that hard. I’m trying to see how we get investment into the continent will be very important and I will do absolutely everything to try and facilitate that. The continent also must do its part to make conditions hospitable for investments to come in, but I think for example if you look at the area of pharmaceutical products, we import more than 90 per cent of the pharmaceutical we use on the continent.
So, how can we help facilitate investment so that we can have on the continent the ability to manufacture more of our medical products and commodities, and the WTO looking at what we can do on the investment side will be very important working with other organisations in partnership like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank and so.
You’ve talked about your initial priority. What will be your first actions upon taking up your duties on the 1st of March? How do you plan to use the political moment of your appointment in the new term?
Okonjo-Iweala: Well, as soon as I get to Geneva in a couple of weeks, my first action will absolutely be to meet with all the ambassadors, start meeting with them because if we are going to move fishery subsidies I need to talk to the ambassador to find out what are the sticking points and which delegation needs to talk to, and where can I help you move that forward.
So, I meet with the ambassador to flesh out what is blocking some of the issues. In fact, you know there is also the possibility to get an agreement on exempting the World Food Programme for instance from export restrictions.
We are almost there but there is an issue with a couple of members, so I will like to visit them to find out all these and how we can move to have that cleared and have that be a success. So, my main priority is to make those political visits then, of course, I want to speak to the staff, thank the DGs, the deputy director-generals have been doing a great job in running the place, thank them, meet with them and have a handover transition meeting with them so that once they are still there they can help me to get to grasp with some of the important things at the secretariat.
That will be my first, shortly after that, I am going to be focusing on MC12 because this is so crucial, we don’t have much time to plan the next ministerial, and that ministerial we have to have several deliverables so I want to start looking at that right away.
You mentioned this issue in your statement but I wonder if you want to elaborate more on it. The COVID-19 is a stress to many governments but it can also be an opportunity for the WTO home to prove its relevance to the twenty-first-century realities. I wonder if you have any concrete plan on how the WTO can help contribute to the fight against the pandemic in a more proactive way, especially against the so-called vaccines national exempts to ensure the free flow of vaccines across countries and their incredible distribution?
Okonjo-Iweala: Yes, absolutely a top priority. I actually think that the COVID-19 is an opportunity for the WTO to have a successor and show what it can do both in the short term and long term.
In the short term, I want to look with staff at the monitoring function to see how many countries still have restrictions and prohibitions that impact medical commodities and look at those and see how the rules, you know, we have rules at the WTO that say look if you want to have this restriction you have to notify, you have to be transparent and you have to declare the period when you phased them out, because they can only be temporary. So, this will be a top priority to see how we can encourage the lifting of those, by looking at what the monitoring function is showing us and then encouraging countries to do that. That will mean a free flow of these commodities.
Secondly, with respect to vaccines, I have said that vaccine nationalism does not pay. I have been in politics in my country, I have been a minister so when this kind of thing happened, it’s very natural for leaders and politicians to want to take care of their own population, there is nothing wrong with that. The problem we do have is that the pandemic is a global problem. So taking care of your population and being nationalistic with respect to vaccines wouldn’t work this time because even if you get all of them vaccinated and then there is a country down the road that hasn’t done that…
So, one of the things that I will do is to see what the WTO can do under the trade agreement to use all the flexibility possible to allow countries to manufacture available vaccines so that they can be more for poor countries quickly, and this will be a great support. The WHO has put together the act accelerator which I mentioned in my speech; the time to speed up the availability of all these things in poor countries, so how can WTO support that by exercising members this flexibility more of those approaches which I called the third way I think that is what we need to focus on and that WTO can actively encourage and support.
What are you as the DG, what role do you play in terms to find consensus between WTO members on the issue of protecting intellectual, property rights, and how do you increase the supply of COVID-19 vaccines?
Okonjo-Iweala: I want to be very proactive, I won’t be shy of saying that, because I think this issue is an issue of life, we are losing lives in all countries all over the world but in poor countries, if we don’t act more lives will be lost. So, what I am going to try to do is meet with members alongside people who are having this argument about intellectual property issues, and try to see if we can find the third way simply because I think we can find a way to be very conscious that we need to encourage research and development. Because if we don’t, then, we won’t have more investments even if to look at the variant of this.
I feel there’s a way to do that and at the same time, allow greater manufacture and that is what I refer to in the last point the licensing, the interesting thing is the pharmaceutical companies are already ahead of us so I think we should just look at what they are doing and support them to do it without rules and if we exercise the necessary flexibility under the treats agreement we can do that.
What is the role of WTO and why do you think WTO is important?
Okonjo-Iweala: With regard to the worry of the issues of trade and experience, I don’t think we should spend a long time on that. One hundred and sixty-two countries, prior to the blockage from the Trump administration, 162 felt I had enough experience to win the consensus, so I think that’s the key. My bank ranks speak for me having been working in the area of trade as a minister of finance, trade facilitation and Customs reported to me. I was the coordinating minister of the economy as well as minister of finance in Nigeria and I coordinated all the economic ministry, including trade.
So I think somewhere perhaps someone got the wrong impression, so that is not a key issue for me. And then if it is about trade negotiations I’m not a negotiator but I don’t think that what the WTO needs right now, if it were just skills for trade negotiations only, all the problems would have been solved because Geneva has no shortage of those skills either within the secretariat or among ambassadors. They have been there and the problems have not been solved so I think those who are saying this need to look at what is the situation, what is the problem and what does it need. What it needs is someone who has the capability to drive reforms, who knows the trade, and who wants to see business as usual and that is me.
On the issue of WTO not working so well and the regional trade agreements, you are right, because the rule book of WTO is not keeping up to date. Regional trade agreements, bilateral agreements, have proliferated. Some of them have more innovations than we have at the WTO, but there is one important thing, the WTO is the only multilateral venue where every member can come together and it is far more cost-effective, economics are there having multilateral agreement than bilateral and regional, so I’m not saying those are not important, they are. But I think the WTO monitoring functions are very important so it can monitor not just a group of countries but all countries.
Multilateral negotiations are very important as you’ve seen yourself, just that the WTO has not been able to have any and we are going to have the fishery subsidies, have one that will hopefully come in and the WTO has the only place where countries members can bring their trade dispute.
So it’s the only place in the world, that is a very important function and that is why we need to form the dispute settlements mechanism so all on all the WTO has been of outermost benefits to its members including the big and rich countries over time because it has ensured fair, transparent rules of the game and a level playing field for the multilateral rule trading system that is still needed today and that is why the WTO is extremely important to underpinned that fair balanced transparent trading system.
You have a very long list of priorities and things that you want to change or to work at WTO of all that list what will be your priority for the first 100 days of your post?
Okonjo-Iweala: The priorities will be one working on solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. What can WTO bring to help solve problems not only on the health side, but also on the economic side looking at trade and how to further liberalise trade, and help the world economy to also bounce back. I will like to see a longer-term framework, not just solving the immediate problems, because I know we are going to have many pandemics in the future.
How do you intend to get the member states going further over your leadership?
Okonjo-Iweala: I think the way to do it is through stronger monitoring, I accept the monitoring function of the WTO. The monitoring function of the secretariat, would really be strengthened, when you have a very strong monitoring function, then you are able to see what is going on within the membership, what are the policies that are being put in place and how did they comply with WTO rules and also using technology? I hope we can continue. Some of the members don’t have the capacity, some least developed members have said to me that they lack the capacity, there we need to give them the help and support needed but some members have the capacity but they are not using these tools and they are not putting out what they are doing as transparently. They will have to speak with them to actually find out what is the issue and how can the secretariat be helpful in trying to get them to do this. So that monitoring function is important.
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