Shortly after her confirmation as the Director-General Designate of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala held her maiden virtual media briefing during which she fielded questions on issues bordering on her priorities and agenda as she prepares to assume office come March 1, 2021. BASSEY UDO, Team Lead, MEDIATRACNET joined from Abuja.
The General Council of the WTO agreed by consensus on my selection as the 7th Director General of the organization. I am deeply honoured and humbled by the support I received from WTO members. Its both exciting and daunting, because I take the reins of the WTO at a time of great uncertainty and challenge.
We have the twin shocks of the pandemic – on the health and economic sides, which are challenging so many, including the life of the people around the world.
The pandemic has brought deep economic devastation to many parts of the world. So, the WTO at this point in time is also facing so many challenges, which makes it clear to me that deep and wide-ranging reforms are needed.
It cannot be business as usual at the WTO. We need to look at the priorities. We need to modernize our rules. We need to look at what the WTO can contribute to solve the present situation of the pandemic. We need to look at our procedures and parts of the institution. So much needs to be done. Of course, it would not be easy, because we also have the issue of lack of trust among members which has built up over time, not just among U.S. and China, or U.S. and EU, as many are wont to say, but also between developing and developed countries.
We need to work through all that if we are to achieve the reforms at the WTO, in order to be relevant in this modern age.
Trade is very important. Trade is made up of 60% of GDP built by thousands percentage points over time. It is also important if we are to come out of this pandemic, both in terms of making sure that there is a freer flow of medical, good sense of lives to deal with the public health emergencies, but also for economic revival and sustainable recovery of the gloom.
Without trade, it cannot happen. Of course, GDP growth contributes to trade. But also looking at some trade rules and liberalization of trade can also contribute to faster GDP growth. So, trade is very important from all sides.
And looking at the membership of the WTO, we must be mindful that whatever we do would benefit all members, not just big members or middle-sized ones, but also the small island economies. This is very important.
Some of the priorities as I see include, first and foremost, the need to focus on the issue of COVID-19 and what the WTO can do to contribute to the solutions.
WTO needs to work with the WHO, with the COVAX facilities, which acts as accelerator, or all these organizations that are trying to accelerate supplies of vaccines to poor countries.
WTO can look at export restrictions and prohibitions from some member. The international trade centre says there are over 100 members who still have these restrictions and prohibitions. How can we lift them, and be very transparent about them; make them temporary, so that there will be freer flow of goods and services?
Second, how can we encourage the third way vaccines that can be manufactured in many more countries, while taking care that we don’t discourage research and innovation, which is linked to the protection of intellectual property rights.
Third, we have the issue of dispute settlement system, which many people call the jewel in the crown of the WTO. There is no point really agreeing on more rules.
We are the only place in the world where countries can bring trade disputes and it doesn’t work. So, it’s a priority to really reform that and take account of the inputs of all members and make sure we come up with the new settlement system that works for all.
There is a need to modernize the rules of the WTO to bring them up to the 21st century issues.
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 leaps and bounds as we move on. WTO does not presently have rules that underpins e-commerce. How to put those rules in place and complete the negotiations will be very important.
Also, there are other types of investment facilitations, and domestic services regulation. These need to be looked at. We have a good chance of trying to come to grips with some of them.
The fisheries subsidies negotiations are also important. Actually, that is one of the furthest advanced as of now, and it speaks to both sustainability of our oceans. It helps to fulfill one of the SDGs. And there is a good chance that ministerial council (MC12), which is a top priority for all the members, is how to have the next MC12 meeting that would be successful.
It provides the venue to conclude some of these issues I have talked about, agreeing about how to solve them, and may be setting a framework for future pandemic as well as agreeing on the fisheries subsides negotiations and the various other negotiations.
One other thing that is very important, which is a priority to me is that e-commerce will help us be more inclusive of women and micro, medium and small enterprises (MSMEs).
Trade is about people. And we have to constantly keep that in front of our efforts. How do we bring those that have been excluded or marginalized, like women or owners of MSMEs into the mainstream?
Then, there are traditional issues like agriculture, which should not be forgotten; industrial and agricultural subsidies; special and differential treatments, which are all difficult areas we will look into down the line.
There are also procedural issues. The way the bodies of the WTO work should be looked at to make them much more efficient.
We need to look again at the procedures for appointing DGs. Also, issues of ensuring consensus does not stand in the way of innovations at the organization.
I also say something about strengthening of the Secretariat, which I must note has very talented staff, among the best you can find the world. So, how do we help them to work better and support members better going forward.
Q: Personal feeling when Trump administration sought to block her appointment
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: I was surprised when that came up at the decision-making meeting, because there was no indication previously that there was any problem with the U.S. I had two very good interviews with the authorities in the administration. So, it was a surprise.
But that’s the way life works. When things happen, you take them in your strides and move on. And so, it was absolutely wonderful when the Biden-Haris administration came in and broke that logjam, and joined the consensus, and gave such a strong endorsement to my candidacy. That has set a very good stage to join the other 163 WTO members to endorse the candidacy. I think that is wonderful.
Q: Additional weight of responsibility as the first woman and first African to hold the position
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: With respect to what I feel, I absolutely do feel an additional burden. I can’t lie about that. Being the first woman and the first African means that one really has to perform to justify the trust and confidence.
I have always said these are wonderful things. Its groundbreaking. All credit to members for electing me and making that history. But the bottom line is that if I really want to make Africa and women proud, I have to produce results. And that’s where my mind is at now. How do we work together with members to get results?
Q: Breaking the logjam in dispute settlement mechanism to get the WTO up and running again.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: This is vitally important. This is the key jewel in the crown of the WTO, because it is the only place in the world that countries can bring trade disputes that they have with each other. So, it’s an imperative.
How do we go about it? I think the one good thing I will tell you is that every member agrees that the dispute settlement system needs reform. So, that’s already a good starting basis, from developing to developed countries; from U.S. to China, India to EU, everyone agrees.
I think what we need to do, even when they have different opinions about what types of reforms are needed. How I will set about it is to first to try to work with members to tease out what their issues are with respect to the dispute settlement system. What are those challenges and the reforms they would want to see?
Of course, there have been some proposals in the past. Perhaps some of those proposals are what we would build on, with respect to the appellate body.
I think that’s where most of the questions arise. So, I will flesh out the reforms and try to systematize and pull them together; get members to agree that these are the set of reforms, we will put together a work programme to implement those reforms.
I hope we can take this to the MC12, which is estimated to take place before the end of the year.
So, we have a few months to try to work this. I think it will really take some time to work it all out. But at least we would get a good start before the ministerial meeting.
Q: How to revive uncompleted round of trade negotiations after 20 years, to give developing nations a sense of belonging in the WTO
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: The second issue is the development round. I think that the development round in Doha, which was never completed, is also a little bit at the bottom of the lack of trust between developed and developing nations, because the developing countries felt this was for them and was never completed.
What we need to do is that there were some possible areas where progress would still be made with respect to agricultural issues.
For instance, public stock holding for food security and coming to agreement on that; the issues on how to deal with cotton. So, there are a few issues that are of concern to developing countries that can be picked up, and we can work on those under the agricultural mandate.
Q: Support that African countries should expect from her leadership in advancing the AfCFTA during her tenure
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: As a WTO DG, I am for all members and so I must work to advance the interest of every single member. Having said that, Africa is at a unique juncture where it is implementing one of the largest trade agreements in the world. Africa has a long-term vision of perhaps serving a complete free trade area on the continent.
So, the issue is: What are the sticky points that WTO could be useful. The WTO rules and institutions have been an inspiration for the design of a part of the AfCFTA. So, the WTO has already learnt its body of institutional knowledge and wisdom to help design this.
Building on that, we need to see what the capacity constraints are in implementing this. Can we use aid for trade to support the Secretariat of the AfCFTA? Can we find technical assistance needed to help break any logjams?
The second way is on WTO working on investment facilitation agreement. Pushing that hard and trying to see how we get investments into the continent will be very important, and I will do absolutely everything to facilitate that.
The continent also must do its part to make conditions hospitable for investments to come in.
But, I think, for example, if one looks at the area of pharmaceutical products, we import more than 90% of the pharmaceutical products to use on the continent.
So, how can we help facilitate investments so that we can have on the continent the ability to manufacture some of our medical products and commodities. Looking at what we can do, the WTO, on the investment side, will be very important. Working in partnership with other organizations like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), World Bank and so on.
Q: First actions from assuming office on March 1.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: As soon I get to Geneva in a couple of weeks’ time, my first action will absolutely be to meet with all the Ambassadors, to flesh out what is blocking some of the issues.
If we are going to move fisheries subsidies, we will need to find out the sticky points are and which delegations needs to be talked to and WTO can help to help move that forward.
There is a possibility to get an agreement on exempting the World Food Programme (WFP) from export restrictions.
We are almost there. But there are issues with a couple of members. So, I will like to visit them to find out how we can move and have that success. That’s my main priority – to make those political visits.
I will love to speak to the staff. I would want to have a town hall meeting at some stage to thank the deputy directors for doing a great job in running the place and have a transition meeting with them, so that they can help me to get to grips with some of the important things at the Secretariat.
Shortly after that, I am going to focus on the MC12, because this is so crucial. We don’t have much time to plan the next ministerial meeting where we would need to have several deliverables.
Q: How would WTO help fight COVID-19 in a more proactive way through distribution of vaccines to countries?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: I think COVID-19 is an opportunity for the WTO to have a success and show what it can do both in the short and long terms.
In the short term, we would look at the monitoring functions of the WTO staff to see how many countries still have export restrictions ad prohibitions that impact on medical commodities, and see how the rules can be made to be transparent and the period to face them out, as it can only be temporary.
This will be a priority to see how we can encourage countries to do what they need to do to ensure a freer flow of these commodities.
On vaccine, I have said that vaccines nationalism does not pay. I have been in politics in Nigeria and a minister. When this kind of things happen, it is natural for leaders and politicians to want to take care of their own population. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that the pandemic is the problem of the global common.
So, taking care of your population and being nationalistic with vaccines won’t work. Even if you get your people vaccinated and you get a country down the road that has not, it will come back in the way of variance.
So, what we would want to do is to work hard to see what the WTO can do under the trades agreements to use all the flexibilities possible to allow countries to manufacture available vaccines so that they can be more for poor countries quickly. This will be a great support to COVAX facilities which GAVI and WHO have put together.
Q: Allegation of inadequate experience on trade negotiations
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Prior to the blockage of my candidacy by the Trump administration, 162 countries of the 163 members felt I had enough experience to win the consensus. That’s the key.
My background speaks for itself. I have been working in the area of trade for a long time. As a Minister of Finance, trade facilitation reported to me. I was Coordinating Minister of the Economy in Nigeria as well as Minister of Finance. I coordinated all the economic ministries, including trade.
So, maybe somewhere someone got the wrong impression. That is not a key issue for me. If it is about trade negotiations, I am not a negotiator. But I don’t think that is what WTO needs right now.
If it were just skills for trade negotiations only, all the problems in WTO would have been solved. 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, those who have been talking about experience need to look at the situation, the problem and what it needs.
What it needs is someone who has the capability to drive reforms, who knows trade and who does not want to see business as usual. That is me. And I am here.
On WTO not working so well with regional trade agreements, it is because the rule book of the WTO is not up to date. Regional and bilateral trade agreements have proliferated. Some 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. It is far more cost-effective. Economics of scale are there in having multilateral agreements than bilateral and regional.
I am not saying those are not important. But the monitoring function of the WTO is very important. It can monitor not just a group of countries, but all countries. Multilateral negotiations are very important, just that WTO has not been able to have any. We are going to have the fisheries subsidies as one that would hopefully come in.
The WTO is the only place where member countries can bring their trade disputes. That is why we need to reform the dispute settlement mechanism.
So, all in all, the WTO has been of utmost benefit to its members, including the rich and big countries over time, because it has ensured fair, transparent rules of the game and a level playing field for the multilateral trading system. That is still needed today.
Q: The path to the reform of the appellate body
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: The reform of the appellate body is not going to be an easy one. But there have been specific criticisms of the appellate body. Its like majority of members would like to see a two-step dispute settlement mechanism, including the appellate body.
But we need to talk to all members to ensure that is still the case. There was the specific criticism of the appellate body over reaching the mandate that was agreed to by members, going to jurisprudence in trying to settle disputes among members. That goes beyond the mandate that members signed for.
Again, the time taken to reach agreements was supposed to be 90 days. But now you have cases that go on for two years or more.
We have to be fair. Cases today are much more complex than in the past. But there is no reason we can’t come to a situation where the norm becomes going back to the 90-day period for the solutions or agreements on how to solve them faster.
The path forward is to surface those criticisms and try to tackle them by eliciting the solutions that all members want and come up with the appellate body that has the confidence of all members.
Q: Priorities for the first 100 days
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: One, working on the 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 liberalize it would help world economy to bounce back. I would also like to see a longer term framework set up for the response to the pandemic.
So not just solving this immediate problem, but to take care of the pandemics in future.
I think the WTO should get on with other international organizations, like WHO, GAVI, World Bank, IMF and other multi-laterals organizations to try to set the rules so that next time we don’t spend time trying to figure out how to respond.
I will like us to work on the fisheries subsidies negotiations which have been going on for 20 years. We need to be accountable to end these negotiations and end them well, because they are very important for the world for the sustainability for the fisheries in our oceans.
We will be focusing on the dispute settlement mechanism and trying to set forward the pathway or work programme, or set of reforms that can be agreed and pushed forward at MC12.
Then the digital economy and e-commerce negotiations are very dear to me. I see the blossoming of SMEs using online platforms to trade and to improve their lives. I want us to see if we can make progress in that area.
Q: Agricultural subsidies during the next WTO ministerial conference
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: I talk a lot about innovative approaches and new rules for the digital economy, MSMEs climate change. But I said we should not forget about agriculture, which is the traditional area that is critically important to many countries, both developed and developing and the emerging markets.
But some of the issues in agriculture are quite thorny. They are not easy.
For instance, the issue of domestic support and the mounting subsidies need to be looked at. These are difficult issues I am not sure the ministerial council would be the best place to handle that.
What I think is, if we should starting looking at lifting the export restrictions on food, which is very important to many countries, especially small island economies and others that have been restricted in terms of food.
Lifting the humanitarian restrictions for the WFP are small areas in agriculture where agreements could be reached. But we can get some work programmes on other issues like domestic support, market access. Its not going to be an easy chapter.
Q: Main value addition her appointment has brought to WTO
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: The main value addition to WTO is a fresh pair of eyes and ears. And a different perspective to problem solving.
Someone who is different and would not accept the way business has been done all the time. It’s a big advantage to come in fresh. That’s what is needed key.
Someone said the definition of madness is knocking oneself against the wall doing the same thing for years and expecting a different result.
WTO cannot go on like that. Its too important an organization. So, bringing fresh energy and vigour; seeing problems in a different light from the way they have always been seen as solutions.
More importantly, I think that is the value I am going to bring to WTO. I really relish that challenge to try and bring a fresh perspective to solving problems.
Q: Getting member-states to be transparent in their practices.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: The way to do it is through stronger monitoring. Accepting that the monitoring function of the WTO Secretariat could be strengthened to be able to see what is going on within the membership. What are the policies being put in place and how they comply with WTO rules as well as using technology to get members to put their new trade rules, regulations what they are doing about export restrictions and prohibitions.
Some of the members don’t have the capacity. Some least developed countries have said that they lack the capacity. We will need to give them help and support needed. There are some members who have the capacity, but are not putting out these tools and what they are doing transparently.
The WTO will have to speak with them to find out what the issues are and how the Secretariat can be helpful in trying to get them to do this.