Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala — a review of her statements on important issues before the WTO ahead of her being confirmed as the Director-General



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

With the events of last Friday (Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee announcement of her withdrawal from consideration for the WTO Director-General position and the U.S. announcement of support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the next Director-General), it is assumed that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will be confirmed as the new Director-General by the General Council in the next week or so. 

During the summer and fall, I posted various reviews of positions being taken by candidates for the Director-General post. Below is information on a range of issues that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala spoke too during that period of time. There are, of course, dozens of issues of interest/importance to various WTO Members. The list below starts with some of the major concerns for countries like the United States. Later entries cover a much broader array of issues. Throughout the summer and fall, helping WTO Members get past the COVID-19 pandemic and obtain economic recovery were constant themes of importance both to Members and to all candidates for the WTO Director-General slot, including Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. Discussion of those themes can be seen in later entries on this post.

  1. Convergence of economic systems vs. coexistence of such systems within the WTO

I start with a post I did on November 10, 2020 examining “values” core to the WTO and reviewing Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s expressed approach to one of those values — convergence vs. coexistence.

“The values of the WTO” — do Members and the final Director-General candidates endorse all of them?

On November 6, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff presented comments to the UN Chief Executives Board. In a press release, entitled “DDG Wolff shares views with international agency heads on future of multilateral cooperation,” the Secretariat provides a short introduction and then includes DDG Wolff’s comments including an Annex. The statement by DDG Wolff is worth reading in its entirety and presents information on the effects of the pandemic and the future of multilateralism including reforms needed for the WTO. However, for purposes of this post, I will focus on Annex 1 to his statement, entitled “The Values of the World Trade Organization. The Annex is copied below and generally reflects views DDG Wolff has presented in the past.

Annex I

The Values of the World Trade Organization

“In the current upsurge in criticism of the inadequacies of the collective responses to the pandemic, the WTO is receiving heightened scrutiny, and more urgent calls for WTO reform. It is necessary to understand the values that the multilateral trading system is designed to promote before it can be reformed.

“A serious inquiry into this subject would serve three purposes:

“to know the value of what we have in the current system,

“to determine if the values of the current system enjoy the support of all WTO members, and

“to address the degree to which the WTO is of sufficient continuing relevance as it is at present or whether it needs fundamental change.

“WTO members can make progress toward improving the organization to help it to create a better world through building on the values that are inherent in the system. These include –

Stability and peace — The original mission of the multilateral trading system was to enhance economic growth to achieve stability and support peace; today the WTO fosters integration of conflicted countries into the world economy.

Well-being — At its core, the organization is about the economic advancement of the people whom its members represent. Well-being is defined to include creating jobs and, as we are finding out, it also includes health;

Rule of law — The enforceability of obligations is a key distinguishing feature of the WTO as compared with most other international endeavours;

Openness – The multilateral trading system rests upon the principle that to the extent provided within the bounds of the WTO agreements, markets will be open to international trade and trade is to be as free from distortions as possible;

Equality — Equality among members provides the opportunity for each member to participate in the organization, and its rights and obligations, to the extent of its capabilities;

Sovereignty — Sovereignty is preserved — no decision taken within the WTO is to have an automatic effect on the laws or actions of any member;

Development — Fostering development to allow all members to benefit equally from the rights and undertake equally the obligations of the WTO.

International cooperation — Cooperation is a shared responsibility of membership to enable the organization to function.

Sustainability — There is increasingly an attitude of care among members for stewardship of the planet and its inhabitants.

The primacy of market forces — Commercial considerations are to determine competitive outcomes.

Convergence —The WTO is not simply about coexistence; differences among members affecting trade which deviate from the principles governing the WTO, its core values, are to be progressively overcome.

Reciprocity — Broadly defined reciprocity is required for negotiations to succeed.

Balance — is provided:

“Through each member’s judgment of the costs and benefits of the rights it enjoys and the obligations it has undertaken;

“Through its view of how its costs and benefits compare with those of other members;

“Through a member’s view of its freedom of action in relation to the freedom of action for others, and

“Specifically, through its judgment of whether it has sufficient freedom to act to temper its commitments for trade liberalization (openness) with measures designed to deal with any harms thereby caused.

Trust — International trade would largely cease if trade-restrictive measures that were inconsistent with the rules were as a regular matter put into place and only removed prospectively through lengthy litigation.

Morality — in its absence, it would be hard to fully explain the provision addressing pharmaceutical availability in health emergencies. The 1994 Marrakech Declaration states that the WTO was being created to reflect the widespread desire to operate in a fairer and more open multilateral trading system.

Universality — Membership is open to all who are willing to negotiate entry.”

Many of these “values of the WTO” are not controversial. Two are critical to the direction of the WTO moving forward — the primacy of market forces and convergence. These values are viewed as critical by the United States and as central by the EU, Japan, Brazil and others. China’s economic system is viewed as inconsistent with these values. 

China rejects the claim that its economic system is properly the subject of WTO scrutiny or that it hasn’t engaged in “reform”. Coexistence, not convergence is China’s view of the appropriate value within the WTO.  And, of course, while China is the largest economy with an economic system at odds with market-economy conditions, it is not the only one.

Importantly, the candidate found through consultations with the WTO membership to be most likely to attract consensus and hence be recommended by the Chair of the General Council and his facilitators to become the next Director-General of the WTO, Dr. Ngozi Oknojo-Iweala of Nigeria, has taken the view that the WTO’s role is not to exclude any economic system but is rather to determine if different economic systems create distortions in trade that need to be addressed through modifications to the rules. 

Here is what I had written up based on Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s participation in a WITA webinar on July 21 and her answer to specific questions. The webinar can be found at https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/.

“Q: On resetting of tariff commitments (comment from USTR Lighthizer as a problem within the WTO based on changing economic development of many countries), would this be in the best interest of the system? 

“A:  This is a critical question and issue.  Renegotiating any agreement would require consensus building that would be very difficult to achieve.  That would certainly be true on bound tariffs. The balance of rights and obligations raised by the United States flows from the concerns about state-led economies and state-owned enterprises and whether such economies belong in the system.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala stated that the WTO is not there to comment on the economy of any Member.  In her view, the key question is what disciplines does the WTO have around any issue that arises.  Are the disciplines sufficient to address the imbalances in rights and obligations that may arise?  We need to start there.  What are the fundamental issues —  state-owned enterprises (SOEs), public body.  Can we come to agreement on the meaning of the term public body?  Can we tighten subsidy disciplines that already exist or can we negotiate new subsidy or other disciplines to address the concerns that arise from these types of economies? That is the approach all Members should be pursuing. 

“Q: On industrial subsidies, China has signaled that they will oppose tightening disciplines.  The U.S., EU and Japan have been working on a proposal and discussing with some Members.  How can the Director-General help the membership navigate these issues? 

“A:  If Dr. Okonjo-Iweala becomes the next Director-General, she would encourage that proposals from the U.S., EU and Japan be tabled so all Members can see what they are and how acceptable they are to other Members (including China).  Let’s start to work with an actual proposal.  Sometimes countries are not as far away as one might think.  Members need to work on a specific proposal and see what happens.”


The WTO is a different organization in 2020 than it was when it started in 1995 or when its basic structure and agreements were being negotiated during 1986-1994. Major economies have joined and some have economic systems that are significantly different than the traditional economies who led the GATT. The question of how to deal with different economic systems within the global trading system has not been addressed directly although some would argue that the U.S., EU and others have worked hard during accession negotiations to get commitments from acceding countries to engage in reform if the economy is based on state-control or other deviations from a market economy. For an economy like China’s, there were early reforms, some of which have been reversed over time and others which were never in fact implemented.

While evaluation of distortions caused by different economic systems is certainly an approach that can be pursued, it starts from a premise of coexistence of economic systems within the WTO and assumes rules can be formed that will adequately address all distortions created by non-market factors in a given economy. But the “convergence” value and the “primacy of market forces” value are fundametal to a system where the results of competition will be viewed as acceptable by all Members. In a consensus system, the refusal of a major player like China to agree to these values limits the likely options to other Members but clearly endangers the ability of the WTO to fulfil its core functions in ways that are acceptable to all.

That the likely next Director-General has taken a position that is at odds with the two WTO values identified in Annex 1 of DDG Wolff’s presentation from November 6 is understandable in a consensus system where there is obvious disagreement among WTO Members on the particular values. However, if moving forward with reform, the WTO membership and its Director-General fail to get Members to agree on the core values, such failure will ensure the WTO will not be the sole arbitrator of trade matters going forward.

2. Reform of the Appellate Body

Below are excerpts from my August 10 post looking at the candidates’ views on reform of the Appellate Body. 

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria):

From her prepared statement, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had relatively short statements about the Appellate Body: “A refreshed WTO must find solutions to the stalemate over dispute settlement. It is clear that a rules-based system without a forum in which a breach of the rules can be effectively arbitrated loses credibility over time.” “I would also prioritize updating the rulebook, unlocking the dispute settlement system, working on transparency and notification, enhancing the work of regular bodies, and strengthen the Secretariat.”

While Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was asked many questions at the press conference, none dealt with the Appellate Body.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on July 21. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted that addressing the Appellate Body impasse was a priority for the next Ministerial and repeated her view that a WTO without effective dispute settlement would lose its legitimacy over time.

In response to a question on how she would restore dispute settlement, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted that there is a common desire among WTO Members to have the dispute settlement system work and function. The question is how. There is a common belief that the panel process has been working well, so that places the focus on the Appellate Body. To address the various issues that have been raised by the United States, the WTO has the work product of the Walker process (note: Amb. Walker (NZ) was a facilitator to the General Council in 2019 to see if he could work with Members to find a solution to issues raised by the U.S.). Some of the proposals made by Amb. Walker can be used to move the process forward. The U.S. is seeking to go back to what the existing Dispute Settlement Understanding requires — 90 days for decisions, not creating rights or obligations (“overreach”), Appellate Body members working on appeals after their terms have expired, etc. We should take them up one at a time and find solutions that work. Can Members agree that appeals should be resolved in 90 days? Very likely. Can Members agree that the Appellate Body is limited to reviewing issues of law and not reviewing fact finding by panels? Very likely.

3. Eligibility for special and differential treatment (self selection as developing country)

In my August 13, 2020 post, I looked at the candidates’ views on the issue of whether change was needed for who qualified for special and differential treatment. Excerpts of what was written on Dr. Okonjo-Iweala are copied below.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s prepared statement directly notes the differing positions on the issue of special and differential treatment and also mentions concerns of Members in terms of imbalances in rights and obligations and distribution of gains (which presumably includes the U.S. concern about high bound tariff rates of many countries who have gone through significant ecoonomic growth in the last 25 years).

“Members’ views differ on a number of fundamental issues, such as special and differential treatment or the need for the WTO to tackle new issues and develop new or enhanced rules to deal with SOEs and agricultural subsidies, for example.”

“While a key objective of the WTO is the liberalization of trade for the mutual benefit of its Members, it appears that this very concept is now a divisive issue as a result of the perceived imbalances in the rights and obligations of Members and the perceived uneven distribution of the gains from trade. I would constantly remind Members about the value of the MTS and help energize them to work harder to overcome the challenges that have paralyzed the WTO over the years.”

During the press conference on July 15th, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was not a question on S&D treatment, classification of developing countries or on tariff bindings.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on July 21. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her opening comments identified the issue of special and differential treatment as an issue that could be considered as part of WTO reform, although it wasn’t in her list of topics for tackling by the next WTO Ministerial Conference. She was asked a question about how to restore trust among Members and used that question to review her thoughts on special and differential treatment and the question of self-selection by Members as developing countries. Below is my summary of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s discussion of the issue.

One issue being pushed by the United States and others that is very divisive is the issue of special and differential treatment and self-selection of developing country status.  The concern of those wanting a change is that self-selection and the automatic entitlement to S&D treatment shifts the balance of rights and obligations to advanced developing countries.  There is no disagreement that least-developed countries need special and differential treatment. In her view, the real question is whether other countries that view themselves as developing should get special and differential treatment automatically.  Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala believes the WTO needs a creative approach to resolve the issue.  For example, Members should address the need of individual Members for special and differential treatment on a negotiation by negotiation basis.  Members should, as part of each negotiation, consider what other Members believe their needs are based on level of development.  She references the Trade Facilitation Agreement as an example where Members took on obligations based on their level of development vs. a one size fits all approach.  Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala believes that if the Members can reach a resolution on this issue, the resolution would help build trust among Members and hence help the WTO move forward.

4. Multilateral fisheries subsidies negotiations and Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce/digital trade

In my post of August 23, I reviewed two important negotiations that were ongoing then and are still ongoing at the present time — the multilateral talks on fisheries subsidies and the Joint Statement Initiative of e-commerce/digital trade. Excerpts of what was written on Dr. Okonjo-Iweala are copied below.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala mentions both concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations and updating the WTO rules to include rules on e-commerce. She adds the need to bridge the digital divide so that any such rules will have broader application and broader input.

“The WTO appears paralysed at a time when its rule book would greatly benefit from an update to 21st century issues such as e-commerce and the digital economy, the green and circular economies. Issues of women and trade and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are important to ensure greater inclusion. Bridging the digital divide to enable Least Developed Countries and other developing countries to participate will be key.”

“My vision is also of a rejuvenated and strengthened WTO that will be confident to tackle effectively ongoing issues such as the fisheries negotiations. With political will, outstanding issues of subsidies that lead to overfishing and unsustainable fishing can be concluded.”

“A rejuvenated WTO must also take on fresh challenges, such as ensuring optimal complementarity between trade and the environment and ensuring that WTO rules best respond to the realities of e-commerce and the opportunities and challenges of the digital economy.”

“Should I be elected, I would work with Members to prioritize delivering a successful MC12 with good outcomes on fisheries, agriculture and other areas. I would also prioritize updating the rulebook * * *.”

During the press conference on July 15 after her meeting with the General Council, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was asked a question on what progress in negotiations was achievable by the next Ministerial Conference and was also asked a question on how she would work towards ensuring a successful outcome on e-commerce negotiations. My notes on her responses to those questions follow.

On the question of what is achievable by the next Ministerial in 2021 and whether it is best to go after issues one at a time or in a larger grouping, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala indicated that she hoped the WTO Membership would make a decision soon on who should be Director-General so whoever is selected has more time before the next Ministerial. But even if a decision is not made until November 2020, there are some areas that could be ready by the next Ministerial. For example, a fisheries subsidies agreement should be achievable. There was a lot of discussion in the General Council on trust and building trust to move negotiations along. Trust is obviously an important issue. So the WTO may need to sequence issues to build trust by achieving a win or two. Once there are some successes, it should be possible to handle more issues in parallel.

The question on what Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would do as Director-General to see that an agreement on e-commerce was pursued was answered by noting that there was extensive work being done plurilaterally by many Members as one of a number of joint statement initiatives. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala agrees that an agreement on e-commerce is very important, but she notes that there is a digital divide where many poorer countries don’t have the infrastructure to take advantage of e-commerce. The WTO, working with other multilateral organizations, needs to see that resources are put together to help countries address the digital divide. Once the digital divide is addressed, all Members should want to and be able to participate in the e-commerce negotiations, so that the agreement becomes a multilateral one.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on July 21. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/. During the webinar, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala made an opening statement in which she reviewed the need to generate some early wins for the WTO at the 12th Ministerial Conference including both fisheries subsidies and e-commerce. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was also asked speciically about e-commerce and digital trade and how to move those talks forward. Below are my notes on those portions of the webinar.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala stated that the WTO is really at a critical moment, an existential crisis.  She believes that something needs to be done to give a lift to the organization.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would focus as Director-General on the next Ministerial Conference and what wins could be obtained at the Conference.  She believes that concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations with its issues of overcapacity and overfishing should be pursued and could be concluded even before the Ministerial Conference.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also believes that the WTO must update the rule book to cover 21st century issues.  As she has noted, the digital economy is driving the world during the COVID-19 pandemic and is of great importance to many Members.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes that the WTO needs to develop rules for e-commerce as e-commerce is the future of much of trade. At the same time, the WTO must address the digital divide so participation and benefits are available to all.

Q: On e-commerce and digital trade, how do you see rules being developed? Should the rules be based on the historic principles of the WTO?

A:  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes that ecommerce and digital trade are very important topics. The WTO must ensure two things. First, traditional WTO principles should apply (non-discrimination, etc.).  She believes that it would be important to get many more countries to join the talks. Stated differently, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes the WTO should always prefer a multilateral negotiation and agreement. However, sometimes plurilaterals are needed to make progress.  Second, the WTO working with other organizations needs to address the digital divide. In Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s view, the fact that many developing countries are not participating flows from the fact that they don’t have the infrastructure to engage in e-commerce to a significant extent and hence neither participate in the talks nor gain benefits.  This is the digital divide.  WTO is not a financial institution, so the WTO needs to team with other organizations to help developing countries overcome the digital divide which will permit these Members to then participate in the negotiations.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also believes that the level of commitments under an e-commerce agreement will need to vary based on the ability of Members to accept obligations and to contribute.

5. Summary of Prepared Statement to the General Council in July and the press conference immediately thereafter

On July 19, 2020, I posted my summary of the prepared statement of each candidate and the answers to questions posed at the press conference immediately thereafter. The summary provides a fuller picture of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s views on a range of issues important to the functioning of the WTO moving forward. I copy below what I had included on Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (Nigeria)

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her prepared statement includes sincere condolences for all who have lost a family member from COVID-19 in French. Later in her statement, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala includes a phrase from her native igbo language, and she gives thank yous in six languages. The main part of her statement is in English. Her statement reviews her record at the World Bank, her time as Finance Minister in Nigeria and her role as Chair of Gavi to stress her ability to achieve reform and to work with other multilateral organizations and her focus on the needs of development and the role trade plays in development.

Looking at the challenges confronting the WTO, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala flags a negotiating function that is underperforming “at a time when its rule book would greatly benefit from an update to 21st century issues such as e-commerce and the digital economy, the green and circular economies. Issues of women and trade and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are import to ensure greater inclusion.” (pages 2-3). Other challenges include improving transparency and notifications, improving the functioning of the regular WTO bodies and strengthening the Secretariat. There are important differences on issues such as SOEs and agricultural subsidies amongst Members and increased trade tensions.

These problems are exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis which have resulted in export restraints by some and stimulus packages which may “undermine WTO commitments by distorting production and trade.” (page 4).

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala reviewed why she believes she is the person to be the next Director-General:

  1. She is a strong believer in the role of trade and of the multilateral trading system to bring shared prosperity. She brings a “fresh pair of eyes to the WTO’s challenges.”
  2. Need to build trust. Not a question of technical expertise but rather political will/solutions.
  3. She has a proven track record in carrying out successful reforms which is what will be needed at the WTO going forward.

After reviewing the range of pending issues before the WTO that need to be completed or addressed, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala reviews the need to work closely with other multilateral organizations and the UN and her ability to improve cooperation with these other entities.

“The rules-based MTS is a public good that underpins peace, security, stability and a chance for prosperity in the world. Every effort should therefore be made to safeguard, improve and renew it to enable it effectively address the challenges of the 21st century.” (Page 11)

During the press conference, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala provided her short statement and then received a large number of questions. Her short statement was that trade is important for the 21st century, for prosperity, resilience and growth. The WTO is at the center of global trade.

She was asked about whether three candidates from Africa hurt her chances to be selected, what she views as the role of the Director-General, how she views the question of fair trade particularly between north and south, what she believes is achievable in terms of deliverables by the next WTO Ministerial Conference in 2021, what she would say to the U.S. President on why the U.S. should stay in the WTO, what the WTO can do to ensure that small and micro-businesses survive the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, what her selection as the next Director-General would mean for women in Nigeria, if selected the next Director-General what would she do to ensure availability of medical supplies to all countries, and whether her perceived lack of a trade background was a handicap in the competition to become the next Director-General.

Her response on the question about multiple candidates from Africa was that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala viewed that it was a positive that there were three qualified candidates from Africa and not a problem. It is up to the Members to select from all of the candidates, a process which should focus on who is the best candidate. If from Africa, great.

On the question of the role of the Director-General, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala views the role to be working with Members to help them reach consensus. It is important that starting with the next Ministerial, the WTO show movement to achieve results.

On the question of fair trade, particularly between north and south, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala noted that the WTO’s role is to support all members to take advantage of fair and open trade. Where the South is getting fewer benefits from global trade, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would use the instruments available to the WTO Director-General (e.g., Aid for Trade, working with other multilateral organizations) to get resources to South Members to improve their position in international trade.

On the question of what is achievable by the next Ministerial in 2021 and whether it is best to go after issues one at a time or in a larger grouping, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala indicated that she hoped the WTO Membership would make a decision soon on who should be Director-General so whoever is selected has more time before the next Ministerial. But even if a decision is not made until November 2020, there are some areas that could be ready by the next Ministerial. For example, a fisheries subsidies agreement should be achievable. There was a lot of discussion in the General Council on trust and building trust to move negotiations along. Trust is obviously an important issue. So the WTO may need to sequence issues to build trust by achieving a win or two. Once there are some successes, it should be possible to handle more issues in parallel.

On the question of why the U.S. should stay in the WTO, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would communicate that the WTO delivers for all Members. The GATT and WTO have provided shared prosperity which has lifted millions out of poverty. Where the trading system is not working, Members need to fix the problems. Peace, security and stability are needed now just as they have been over the last decades. These are what the WTO rules-based system provides. If we didn’t have the WTO, we would need to invent it.

On the question of MSMEs, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala noted that they are very important globally but are being harmed by COVID-19 fallout. How to ensure MSMEs survive and get such entities better included in the global trading system is a matter of great interest to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. There is a great need to facilitate provision of additional resources to help these entities. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would work with other multilateral organizations to help facilitate assistance.

On the question of what will her getting selected Director-General of the WTO would mean for women in Nigeria, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala noted that women not just in Nigeria but around the world are ready for greater roles. But Dr. Okonjo-Iweala reiterated that selection of the WTO Director-General should be based on merit–if a woman, great; if from Africa, great.

On the question of what she would do as Director-General to ensure smooth trade of medical goods including therapeutics and vaccines, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala indicated that she would use the knowledge she has from the chair of GAVI and working with other groups and organizations to ensure that the WTO did its part to ensure equitable and afforadable access to any vaccines developed to address COVID-19. There should be no barriers to access to the medicines/vaccines while honoring intellectual property rights. It is critical that everyone have access to lifesaving medicines at the same time and at affordable prices.

On the question of whether the consensus rule at the WTO should be gotten rid of to overcome gridlock, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala responded that part of the strength of WTO is that agreements are reached by consensus. Where all sovereign states agree to a text, they are more likely to implement the provisions. The real question is how to make consensus better. In Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s view, the underlying problem with the current consensus system is the lack of trust among the Members. Thus, there is an urgent need to rebuild trust. To rebuild trust, the WTO needs confidence building measures, i.e., obtaining wins in achieving new agreements. That will show that consensus can and does work.

The question on what Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would do as Director-General to see that an agreement on e-commerce was pursued was answered by noting that there was extensive work being done plurilaterally by many Members as one of a number of joint statement initiatives. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala agrees that an agreement on e-commerce is very important, but she notes that there is a digital divide where many poorer countries don’t have the infrastructure to take advantage of e-commerce. The WTO, working with other multilateral organizations, needs to see that resources are put together to help countries address the digital divide. Once the digital divide is addressed, all Members should want to and be able to participate in the e-commerce negotiations, so that the agreement becomes a multilateral one.

On the question of whether her career in finance is a handicap for a trade position, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala disagrees with the premise as her career has always involved trade as a development economist and also as finance minister where Customs was part of her responsibilities.

6. Minutes of meeting with the General Council

The WTO minutes from the meeting each candidate had with the General Council during July was published in October. My post of October 15, 2020 provides a summary of questions posed to each candidate and embedded the full General Council minutes of the meeting. The portion of my summary on Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is copied below.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s questions came from Afghanistan, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, European Union, Paraguay, Estonia, Australia, Latvia, Guatemala, Japan, Mongolia, Brazil, and Malaysia. The questions dealt with a range of issues including the following sample:

  • The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on developing countries, LDCs and small vulnerable economies (SVEs).
  • How to ensure the benefits of open trade are distributed equitably?
  • What steps will you undertake to ensure a multilateral outcome at the next Ministerial?
  • Role of the Director-General (DG) in addressing lack of trust among Members.
  • Role of the DG in facilitating economic recovery and resilience.
  • What is necessary to restore functioning of a binding, two-step dispute settlement system in the WTO?
  • Do transparency and notification obligations need to be strengthened?
  • Focus in the first 100 days.
  • Your initial approach to the reform of the WTO.
  • What kind of approach and efforts would you like to make to advance the subject of e-commerce?
  • Role of plurilaterals in the WTO.
  • How to deal with the different views on special and differential treatment?
  • What are your plans relating to empowering women in the future WTO agenda?

Each candidate in their summing up at the end of her meeting with the General Council circled back to their prepared statement. Their short summing up statements are copied below.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (page 26):

“The nature of the questions that I have heard and the nature of the discussions give me hope. Members are clearly interested in a WTO that works, in a WTO that is different from what we have now, in a WTO that shows a different face to the world. I can see it and I can feel it. And if ever I am selected as Director-General, that gives me hope that there is a foundation to work on. Before coming in here, I have spoken to several Members, but I did not really know that. From listening to all of you and fielding your questions, I now know that there is a basis to work on. And I want to thank you for it.

“And I really want to end where I began. Trade is very important for a prosperous and a recovered world in the 21st century. The WTO is at the centre of this. A renewed WTO is a mission that we must all undertake, and we need every Member, regardless of economic size, to participate in this. If we want the world to know who we are as the WTO, we have to commit. Having listened to you, I hear the commitment and I want to thank you sincerely for that.”

The questions and answers are contained on pages 19-26 of WT/GC/M/185 and are copied below.

  • Questions and Answers2
    Q: You mentioned that you have been a Board Chair of GAVI. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a very significant negative impact on trade and economies of all countries especially in the case of developing countries, LDCs and SVEs. What do you think should be done to ensure that these countries can rely on the multilateral trading system to help them move out of this crisis? (Afghanistan)
    A: Probably the COVID-19 pandemic is one the most serious issues of our time. To answer your question, I think we have to look at it both from the short-term and the longer-term perspective. To aid the developing countries, the vulnerable economies and the world, we need to look at the short term responses that have happened with COVID-19. Some export restrictions have been put by some on the export of medical supplies and even of food. So, first, it would be good to look at those in the short term if they are temporary, proportionate and transparent and if Members are fading them out as promised. Otherwise, we have to work to unlock such measures in order to make sure that medical supplies and food are available, especially to the food import dependent countries that will need access to them. This is also an issue in the longer term to ensure that while we make efforts to keep trade open for those countries that cannot manufacture their own medical supplies or equipment or their own food for them to be able to import essential items, we should balance it with the consideration of enabling those countries who want the ability to manufacture some of these things to do so. That is something we need to watch. But from where I sit, the issue of vaccines and making sure that that is available when a vaccine is proven and of quality, is critically important, especially for developing countries and vulnerable economies. So, in the longer term, we have to ensure that we have an open, flexible trading system that allows imports or exports of these
    medicines and medical supplies and vaccines to countries that cannot manufacture them. A second aspect of the impact of COVID-19 has to do with the world economy recovering from the deep recession that the world is going into. The IMF has forecasted that the world economy is going to contract by about 5%-6% and some of the vulnerable and small economies may contract even more. So, finding a means for trade to play the role it should to continue with its recovery efforts in these economies and the world will be vital. Making trade an instrument of economic recovery will be of great assistance, not only to developing countries and small and vulnerable economies, but to the world as a whole. It should be an instrument to help the world recover.
    Q: The world economy has changed quite significantly in recent decades. The question is the challenge to the WTO in responding to the changed nature of the world economy. How do we ensure that the benefits of open trade are distributed equitably, particularly to meet the needs of developing countries, and how can we guarantee that that happens through negotiations in the period ahead? (Ireland)
    A: The world economy has indeed changed and continues to change. If you look at the data, you will find that trade in goods have been declining in terms of its rate of growth, while that of services and data flow across borders have been growing exponentially. Digital trade and e-commerce have also become important. So, to respond to these challenges, I talked about the need to update the rulebook of the WTO to take account of these challenges of the world, be it for e-commerce and the digital economy, environment and climate change, women and MSMEs. We need to update the rulebook and facilitate the discussions to meet these challenges. In terms of LDCs, we need to make sure that the changing trading environment benefits them. Some of the provisions for LDCs in terms of Aid for Trade and EIF would, for example, be a means of supporting them to be able to strengthen their participation in the multilateral trading system, so that they could benefit from it. We need to pay particular attention to the needs of the LDCs – the most closely identified group of the WTO, in which there are 47 Members. The policy space for them to develop is particularly important, and strengthening them through Aid for Trade and technical assistance to be able to benefit from world trade is also very important and should enable them to increase their gains from trade. In addition to that, we should also look at issues of MSMEs that are quite common in these countries and try to see how we can support these and strengthen them both with policies behind the border, as well as outside to enable them to participate and benefit more from the world trade system. This would also
    help the LDCs.
  • [2 The following delegations also[ submitted their names to ask a question to the candidate: Barbados,
    Bulgaria, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, France, Gabon, The Gambia, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mali, Nepal, The Netherlands, Panama, Philippines, Romania, Russian Federation, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Sri Lanka,
    Switzerland, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, Turkey, United States, Uruguay and Zimbabwe.]
    Q: In your presentation, you touched upon your priority issues for MC12. If elected, what concrete steps will you undertake to ensure a multilateral outcome at MC12? (Kazakhstan)
    A: MC12 is probably one of the most important things facing the WTO. From that perspective, it would be very important to have good outcomes from MC12 in order to show the world that the WTO is back, the WTO is rejuvenated, the WTO is relevant. I am afraid that if we do not have those kinds of outcomes from MC12, we will continue to have a view of the WTO, of an organization that is fleeting in relevance. I do not think that that is right because I strongly believe that the WTO is needed. So, I will be looking for issues where we could have successful outcomes where Members working together could agree. For instance, the fisheries negotiations have been ongoing and I hope that they will be concluded perhaps even before the end of the year or before MC12. It would be my hope and expectation that the remaining issues about subsidies, if you want to call them bad subsidies, that lead to overcapacity and overfishing would be agreed especially on how to deal with them, including what disciplines to put around them – and the issue of supporting small scale fisheries would also be agreed. With political will, I know we can do it. So, this will be a top priority. With respect to agriculture, if there cannot be agreement reached, I would hope that the discussions and conversations will at least move along. I know the issues of domestic support, PSH, SSM and other issues are topical, and I would hope that we will be able to move along on those and other
    areas, including market access. As I said, if not for an outcome, we must at least advance those discussions. I would also hope that we would be able to advance discussions on issues like MSMEs and women and trade. There are also some plurilateral negotiations that more than a hundred Members are participating in, like investment facilitation. I would hope that we could also advance on those negotiations. These are my priorities for MC12. If we could get those kinds of outcomes on fisheries, movement on agriculture, movement on women and trade, movement on MSMEs, that would be something that would show the world something new and something successful for the WTO.
    Q: Could you briefly describe the WTO within four words during the four years of your leadership? (Ukraine)
    A: I can only think of one word that reflects what I would want the WTO to be and look like within four years of my leadership – and that is “great”.
    Q: Many point to the lack of trust between, in particular, major players as one of the main reasons why it is difficult to create progress, in particular in the negotiating pillar, but also in the reform agenda in general. Do you see a role for the Director-General in addressing the trust issue between the major players? And if you see a role, how would you then approach that issue? What would be your contribution, and do you have experience in your long career that can be relevant to that task? (Norway)
    A: I mentioned in my speech that the issues and challenges confronting the WTO are not purely of a technical nature because they would have already been solved if such was the case. So, the question about the political context is absolutely right. There has been a background from what I understand or can see of, maybe, lack of trust between major Members, but also, maybe sometimes, between developing and developed Members. I think the only way that I know to build trust is to find areas of common interest where there is interconnection that you can begin to build and bring the parties together. This is where the Director-General of the WTO, who has no direct power and can only work through influence with Members, can contribute. Influence can be proactive. You need an energetic, committed and proactive DG who can help do this and find those interconnections. Sometimes, when people seem to have disagreements, if you listen carefully, there are areas where they actually agree. And if you can begin to build on those areas and have some win-win results, that would begin to build trust. Talking about building trust, talking alone does not bring it. It helps but it does not bring it. You build trust only with action. So, we must find those actions that will help build trust. And it will take time, but we can do it. So, that is what I will do. With respect to the major powers, this is a very challenging issue because it is very political. But as DG, I would do my best. One of the things that I would try to convey to the major powers is that I think both are interested in a multilateral trading system that also helps developing countries and vulnerable economies that function for the whole world. I would seek to remind them that they had benefited from this in developing their economies and can still benefit again. I would look for those intersections where again one can begin to bring them together around common or shared interests because I think there are some. Every Member is interested in a dispute settlement system that works, for instance. We must think of ways on how we can begin to build confidence and trust in some small actions leading to big ones between Members that can lead them again to begin to work together for the WTO. As I said, I had a long career at the World Bank as Minister of Finance. Using that, I have been able to establish bridges and contacts where I can reach levels where policy decisions are being made. If you need to solve this, you have to first work with the Ambassadors but you also have to reach those people who are making the decisions and be able to talk and to listen to them to understand what their issues are. That is the way you can see the interconnections that you can use to build bridges and then actually begin to build them. I believe I have the contacts in both powers to be able to do this. And this is what I would bring if I am elected to be the next WTO Director-General. There is no easy way in building trust, but I think it can be done. And the DG
    should actively and proactively work with Members to do this.
    Q: Why do you think the WTO has struggled so much over the past decade to conclude substantive multilateral outcomes and what will you do as DG to change that? (New Zealand)
    A: Some of what I said before lies at the crux of the struggle with negotiations. The issue of lack of trust among Members that has diminished over time has made it more difficult. When one side brings an issue, sometimes the other side thinks there is nothing in it for them. When that side brings an issue, the other side thinks they are doing this to stop my interests from being realised. It is a fundamental lack of trust that has led to struggles to complete or conclude negotiations. This is where one has to work really hard. As I said before, the only way to build trust is to find some common areas where Members agree. In the multilateral negotiations that is ongoing for fisheries, this has been progressing relatively well and I believe that it is possible to come to an outcome. I am hopeful that a successful outcome to this would then lead Members again to believe they can work together, that they can tackle some of the difficult issues, and that they can again reinstate their ability to negotiate. I think this is part of the issue. Perhaps in the past, there were some negotiations that did not go so well and trust was broken. That has fundamentally been the problem. There are issues under the Doha Development Agenda where Members did not agree and since then it has been quite difficult. Much as we talk of difficulty, I see light at the end of the tunnel. I am
    really hopeful that we are going to have those outcomes. With that, trust will begin to come back. As DG, I would actively, off the bat, start working hard with Members to make sure that we have such an outcome because it will be a bridge to better work together for negotiations.
    Q: The world is facing the depressed recession likely to dwarf the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis. How do you see your role in facilitating a multilateral trading system that contributes to economic recovery and resilience? (South Africa)
    A: This is the critical question of our time. How do we get the multilateral trading system to play the role it should play to aid economic recovery in the world? As I have said, there are short-term aspects of it and longer-time ones. In the short term, we must remove those restrictions that impede trade, so that countries will be able to have access to the supplies and goods they need to be able to recover. In the longer term, I believe that liberalization of trade is also important if trade is to contribute to lifting the world out of recession. As we see it, the world economy focused to contract by 5%, while trade, according to the statistics, I saw would contract probably by 18%. And this is deep, so we have to work hard to find those levels that will enable trade to contribute. Removing the restrictions and making sure they do not reappear in the longer term, liberalizing trade, working on new issues, energizing new issues that could lead to more trade in the world, being inclusive and working on MSMEs and ensuring that there are no unduly high tariffs against goods and services that will allow us to trade more in those items, would be positive contributions of the multilateral trading system. In addition, for LDCs and SVEs, we must also see how to support them with behind the-border issues like investment in their economies, for them to be able to participate more and better to the multilateral trading system, because that is how they will come out of their current challenges. We must also look at the massive amount of stimulus liquidity that have been put in the economies for recovery. The stimulus packages are quite rightly done because we need that for the
    world economy to recover. But we have to make sure that they do not result in trade-distorting measures that can inhibit trade, that should help the world recover and that we phase out this liquidity and the stimulus in a good way that promotes trade and does not inhibit it. So, it is a basket of measures. Some of them are trade related while others are behind the borders to help countries because they need additional help and assistance for them to participate. If I were DG, I would do this by working very closely with some other multilateral organizations. I will work closely with the World Bank and IMF to look for resources, including the regional development banks, so that if we want to increase and if we want trade to assist, we need to also look at what countries need for investment and for strengthening their ability to trade behind the borders. So, getting resources and working in a policy-coherent fashion with these organizations to help Members to better trade would be the kinds of issues that I would look at as the Director-General.
    Q: In your view, what would be necessary to restore the functioning of a binding, twostep dispute settlement system in the WTO? (European Union)
    A: The restoration of a binding, two-step dispute settlement system is one of the most fundamental issues that have to be tackled if the WTO is to be seen as continuing to function. You cannot have a rules-based organization without a forum in which disputes can be brought and settled. Otherwise, as I said in my speech, it loses credibility over time. So, it is absolutely essential that we work to restore this two-step system. I would look at some of the issues that different Members have with the dispute settlement system – be it the issue of the length of time it takes for the Appellate Body to come to some answer to, or resolution of, the cases before it, or the 90-day limitation, be it looking at mandates whether it is making judgments or reaching conclusions beyond the covered agreements that Members have reached. These are some of the issues that are being questioned. There are also some Members that feel that there are structural issues that inhibit them from participating in the two-step system. These are all the thing that I will look at. There have been some arrangements like the MPIA that about 19 countries, including the EU, have come together to propose as an interim measure. There was also the Walker Process that has been undertaken and there are some elements and suggestions in there that we could build on to restore the two-tier dispute settlement system. Whatever we do about it, it has to come out as a system that is
    independent, impartial and that works within a specified mandate. It has to be a system that all Members can have confidence and trust in.
    Q: In the context of the pandemic and the tensions between Members, what additional role do you think that the organization could play in the growing uncertainty in trade to show the added value of keeping a multilateral trading system? (Paraguay)
    A: In the context of this pandemic, with all the uncertainty that it brings to the global economy and to the world, and in the context of the tensions between Members, I really do think that the organization, in order to show that it is relevant and that it can add value, has to have some wins that can demonstrate that the multilateral trading system is functioning, alive and well. There are two parts in this regard. If in the first part it would be necessary to have a good outcome on an area of negotiations that would materially improve trade for Members, such as in fisheries, and we can see that spur in trade. If we can support small scale fisheries within that which is important to many countries, Members and people around the world, including the common woman and man, will begin to see that the WTO is about people and it is for people. Therefore, they will begin to know the value that the multilateral trading system will have if we can have agreements that can lead us to increase trade in the world and use the multilateral trading system as an instrument to recover from this recession and this crisis. The WTO can be a part of that in spurring this and making sure that we come to either new agreements that can spur or liberalize trade or existing agreements that we can move in order for Members to be able to trade more. I think that will bring confidence. We need to take actions that will make the world and Members see that the WTO is alive, well and functioning – a rejuvenated WTO that is adding value to the multilateral trading system.
    Q: Do you think that transparency and notification obligations concerning trade measures need to be strengthened? How can this be done? (Estonia)
    A: This is an important question. Transparency and notification need to be strengthened. Transparency is one key factor that is essential in the multilateral trading system. If there is no transparency and Members are not notified ahead of time of actions in the trading system of Members, then this brings uncertainty. And uncertainty for business is not a good thing. As I mentioned, it makes transactions cost higher not only for Members but also for their businesses. I believe that this is a very important thing. But sometimes, Members do not notify, not because of lack of political will, but because they do not have the resources and the capacity to deal with notifications. So, we really have to look at it and understand why this is not happening in a Member’s context. And if it is a question of that capacity, we build it. This will contribute to them being able to notify and will in turn strengthen the multilateral trading system and be encouraging to
    businesses. Currently, we are all looking at how to come out of this recession. So, WTO Members need to do all those things that are helpful for this. For instance, when it came to the issue of export restrictions on food and medical supplies, notifications of a certain number of days to Members would have helped because one way that the WTO can contribute to economic recovery and to the multilateral trading system is to make sure that any restrictions on the supplies of medical equipment, vaccines included, and of food are removed. If there are going to be restrictions, those should be notified ahead of time and done in a transparent, proportionate and temporary manner, so that Members who need to get access to these can do so. They are all linked together: transparency, notifications, ability to generate trust that Members are acting according to the WTO Agreements and ability to increase world trade by doing all of these.
    Q: What would you focus upon in your first 100 days as WTO Director-General? (Australia)
    A: In my first 100 days, should I be selected as Director-General, I would be very keen to get off the mark very quickly because there are a lot of things to focus on. Firstly, I would focus on how to deliver a successful MC12. That would be my topmost priority because it is linked to changing the image of the WTO and letting the world know that things can be accomplished. And then I would focus on those areas that are likely to be a win at the negotiations, like the fisheries coming to some conclusion on that. Other areas where we can move along such as agriculture, given its complexity might not lead us to an outcome, but we can advance on those issues. Another issue that I would also be keen to discuss at MC12 would be those linked to COVID-19. We have had a lot of questions on that. What does this mean for world trade? What does this mean for rules? How should we look at this for the future? This is not only going to be the first pandemic. There will be others. MC12 should focus squarely on how we do that and prepare the world the next time to tackle such an issue. I would listen carefully to Members. That is a priority for me. In order to understand what you need to do, you have to listen. What do Members want? And then, based on that, after MC12, I would prioritize renewing the negotiations and updating the rulebook along the lines that I mentioned in my speech, which include those issues for the 21st century that matter so much. I am also
    passionate about issues related to women and trade. I would like to see some movement on that, even if it is just discussions. We should also look at issues on MSMEs because they are the enterprises that create most jobs. I would also be very keen to work on the dispute settlement system. I would work with Members to see what we can do. We had a question from the EU about the two-tier system and how we would restore that. So, that would be a priority. What can we build on? What can get Members to work on this? If we are able to restore the two-tier dispute settlement system, it will send such a sharp signal to the world that the WTO is back and that is what I would like to see. On transparency and notifications, I really think it is important because it is what underlies the multilateral trading system. So, I would like to work on that. I have named three. I can round it up by saying that I would like to see how to strengthen the Secretariat to support the new rules and the way that the world is going to see if it is fit for purpose. That would be very important to me to see also if the Secretariat looks like all its Members, and if not, how do we make it so.
    Q: How do you intend to balance the Director-General’s different roles: the managerial role, the role of negotiation facilitator and the advocacy role? (Latvia)
    A: This is what makes the job of the Director-General of the WTO very interesting because you have to learn how to balance those roles, but you have to play all of them. We have a very good Secretariat with very experienced staff. So, I would hope to be able to lean on them as well to help us see how we can facilitate and move along negotiations looking at areas where Members need more support, including analysis. So, I would depend on some of the resources that I have to some extent, because it is teamwork. I would do that in facilitating negotiations. On the managerial role, I would draw my experience as a Number 2 at the World Bank managing a very big staff. The World Bank has at least 12,000 staff. Since I was a Managing Director in charge of operations in several of the regions with a USD 1 billion portfolio, I would try to apply that experience to help me with the managerial tasks. On advocacy, I will be very keen. The WTO needs to change its image. I will also try to spend quite a bit of time on advocacy by talking about the values of the WTO and its purpose, about what the WTO can bring to the world, about the new ways the WTO is working, about the fact that it is tackling topical issues. I would be very keen to advocate that because this is an organization that matters. During my time at the World Bank, the WTO mattered and still matters. So, advocacy for it would be one of the things I would be keen on. I have been balancing these things in my career most of my life and I think it would be an honour and privilege to try to balance them for the WTO.
  • Q: In different fora for some time now, we have been discussing the reform of the organization, particularly given the challenges of the 21st century and now with the global pandemic. What would be your initial approach to the reform of the organization? How would it take place and how would you implement it? (Guatemala)
    A: On the reform of the organization, there has been lots of discussions among Members from what I can see. When I spoke to Members, practically every Member talked about the need for reform. But what was not so clear was which reforms and their approach to the reforms. There are some differences in views among Members about which reforms and how to approach the reforms. Some Members feel that they may not even be participating in the discussions of these reforms, that they are marginalized. Given that situation, I would want to spend some time to really talk and listen to Members to understand what they believe about these reforms – which reforms they would like to see and how. And then I would try to be proactive in pulling that together to be sure that Members are on the same wavelength about which are the critical reforms and the sequencing of the reforms, because we cannot do everything at once. So, sequencing is important. From where I sit, I would think that there would be one or two that would be critically important to embark on as quickly as possible, and that would mean getting Members’ views on those such as the dispute settlement system, which is where the world comes to have its disputes on trade arbitrated. When I speak to business people, this is one of the things they find so important in the WTO. So, I would be keen to know if all Members consider this as a priority, and then I would set about working with
    Members to see the shape of what the reforms to the dispute settlement system could be and how we would build on some of the issues or the processes, understand the disagreements that some Members have with the way it is functioning at the moment and see if we can build some agreement on how to proceed to reform it and to see that it is implemented. Again, the rulemaking system that I have talked about before is an important reform – making sure that the rulebook of the WTO is updated to reflect the way the world is going be it on e-commerce. In this regard, I would want to make sure that we bridge the digital divide for those Members that do not have that ability. In a nutshell, I will try to put together what I hear from Members on what they understand of reforms. I would then try to organize this in a sequenced fashion, giving priority to the top ones that I think are achievable and those that would also make the WTO looks like it is really producing results. And then I would try to work with the staff to facilitate the implementation of these reforms.
    Q: The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of e-commerce. As you have touched upon on your initial remarks, the WTO has been engaged in the negotiations in a plurilateral way with this subject. As you know, there are some difficult challenges we are facing. What kind of approach and efforts would you like to make for advancing this subject? (Japan)
    A: The issue of e-commerce and the digital economy, as you rightly observed, has been demonstrated by the way the world has gone online during this COVID-19 crisis, be it for the purchase of goods and services, be it for education, among others. This is an area is here to stay in the world and I think will continue to be very important. But in trying to advance the negotiations, I would be very mindful of the concerns of some Members who feel that, in order to participate in discussions on e-commerce and the digital economy, they need to be able to do so. Perhaps this is one reason why some Members are not part of the plurilaterals. So, one way to advance that and make sure that these important negotiations move towards a multilateral track that can involve all Members, that can have MFN characteristics and that can allow Members to join when they can, would be to move it along in a direction that would be more comprehensive by looking at what are these challenges that some Members face and what their hesitations are in order to tackle those.
    There are Members who feel that they are not yet ready to participate, so they are hesitant about the gains they would derive from participating. Attending to those issues with Aid for Trade and technical assistance to get the digital infrastructure to these Members that would be required for their businesses and MSMEs to participate in e-commerce would be critically important. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was in Rwanda and saw e-commerce in action with women in their cooperative who were able to sell 30 tons of coffee and make USD 4 a ton more than they would ordinarily have made, because there was no intermediary. And they did this online. So, this is the shape of the future. It is critically important that for e-commerce, we make sure the infrastructure is there, we make sure there is agreement to update the rules, so that this can become something that every Member can benefit from.
  • Q: As you know, the WTO is a Member-driven organization. You said that you would like to advance negotiations and be a very proactive Director-General. Do you think that proactivity is enough to advance the negotiations and resolve the problems that the WTO is currently facing? Do you have any other particular ideas as Director-General to bring those negotiations forward? (Mongolia)
    A: That is a very critical question. The WTO is a Member-driven organization. It is the Members who decide how to move issues along. The Director-General does not have the direct power to do this and can only succeed through working with Members and helping to build consensus. I have been thinking about it. When you build consensus, that means that every Member is part of it. Every Member will have the incentive to implement it. So, we need to work harder to make sure that that consensus-building takes place. When I say “proactive”, I do not mean that the Director-General takes over. No. I read somewhere that the Director-General is more like a butler who is there to make sure that Members are happy. Even a butler can be proactive. My proactivity relates to the fact that I would work hard with Members to overcome the difficulties that have lain in the way of consensus-building to advance negotiations. And we have talked about some of these before, including the fact that there is lack of trust. The Director-General can be proactive in trying to bridge these lines and help build and restore that trust. This is one way you can help Members to understand each other better, to be the one that runs between and carries the views and messages, to be the one that ensures that the appropriate analysis is done that can move negotiations along and to be the one that supports and bridges the gap. That would be my answer to your question – a proactive supporter to make consensus-building quicker, faster and with more deliverables.
    Q: You have used more than once the expression “update the rulebook”. One of those updates seem to be in the more permanent role of plurilaterals. How do you see that? What space you think they should have in the future reform process of the WTO? (Brazil)
    A: This issue of the nature of negotiations, whether plurilateral or multilateral, is one of the difficult ones among Members. Multilateral negotiations are always preferable because they involve all Members and reduce transaction costs. However, under certain circumstances, if there is a need to move an agenda along, one could look at plurilateral negotiations as a means of doing that. But it would be in the hope that the plurilateral negotiations could move in a direction that would become multilateral, by ensuring Members can join when they are able to do so, and by ensuring there are MFN characteristics to it. That would be the way I would see it. Plurilaterals can help us not be stuck and move along on some important issues, but the objective is always to get to multilateral negotiations, or, if we cannot, to make sure all Members can benefit by being able to join and have the benefits of it when they can.
    Q: In your presentation, you have addressed the issue of special and differential treatment. We know that there are different views on this issue. While some would argue that it is a treaty-embedded right, others view that such flexibilities should be given on a needs basis. How would you use your office as Director-General to reconcile these different interpretations of the S&DT principle and to ensure that some Members are not unduly penalized? (Mauritius)
    A: The question of S&DT is probably one of the most difficult and divisive issues within the WTO. One has to tread with caution. There are three categories of Members within the WTO: developed, developing and LDCs. The 47 LDCs are clearly identified according to the UN criteria. There would not be much debate on S&DT for LDCs to enable them to strengthen their economies and advance. The debate comes when it comes to the category of developing country Members. As Director General, to help move this along, I would work with Members to be very creative. I would look at building on agreements such as the TFA which found a solution where Members can decide how they would implement agreements, the pace at which they can do it and the capacity building and technical assistance that they would need to implement those provisions. A creative solution along those lines might be one way to begin to deal with this difficulty. There are other solutions. I am not saying that it is the only one. But that is the way my mind is working – a solution that allows Members in a creative fashion to deliver their commitments without the issue of categorization.
    Q: As Director-General, what are your plans relating to empowering women in the future WTO agenda? (Malaysia)
    A: Now you have touched on a subject that I am quite passionate about. As part of the WTO agenda, I was very excited when I saw the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment. As WTO Director-General, I would seek to work with Members to advance those discussions and I would seek to mainstream the issue of women and trade across the work done at the Secretariat. In all the negotiations we do, we should look at whether we are empowering women and whether we are supporting them to participate better. There is the “She Trades” initiative. We should think how we can use that as a means of advancing this objective. This is an agenda that would be exciting to move along and mainstream it in the work of the Secretariat and the negotiations, because women own 50% or more of MSMEs. Helping them to trade more will create more jobs and spur economic growth and sustainable development in our economies.

7. Other materials on Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

In a post from September 1, 2020, I reviewed and summarized comments of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as reported in various press and other sources. The bulk of the post is copied below.

Race for WTO Director-General — additional material on Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)

Today I review some other press articles about the candidates to provide additional perspective on important issues or the candidate’s approach to the position of Director-General if selected. Yesterday, I posted material about Dr. Jesus Seade Kuri. 

There is no intention on my part to be exhaustive and the research has been limited to press pieces in English. Rather the intention is to identify information not addressed in my earlier posts that may be of interest to readers.

Today’s post looks at a few articles featuring Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria, the second candidate nominated.

  1. The Australian, August 17, 2020, Should WT address antai-dumping measures?, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a_GGL&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theaustralian.com.au%2Fbusiness%2Fleadership%2Fshould-wto-address-antidumping-measures%2Fnews-story%2F995b960b1de450c1d983f4aabeca2351&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium&nk=1fc9f182863545ef2c82ab30edd82766-1598966889

The summary of the article states that “Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala says the WTO should investigate whether Australia was inappropriately using anti-dumping provisions to keep out foreign steel.” I am not a subscriber to the Australian and so the information provided above is limited.

2. Nikkei Asian Review, July 13, 2020, Good listener or strong negotiator? WTO candidates make case for top job, https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/Good-listener-or-strong-negotiator-WTO-candidates-make-case-for-top-job.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

* * *

Q: How would you go about navigating reforms at the WTO amid a rise of unilateralism and U.S.-China trade clashes?

A: This is the topical question of the hour, the growing nationalism, the divide. But if you listen carefully, you find that there’s some intersecting interests. After all, the same big powers that seem to have a big divide are sitting across each other at the table and negotiating some deals. 

“The WTO should work with all members including the big ones to find out what are those intersecting areas — however small they may be — how do we begin to deliver to make the two sides see their common interests that we can work on and build trust.

“It will take time, it will be challenging, there’s no magic wand to it, but you need someone with the energy, the passion, who is not a quitter, and who can deliver and work with these powers and listen — listen to them, because sometimes they feel they’re not even listening to the big powers.

Q: Could you talk about your visions for reforms?

A: First, updating WTO rules to the 21st century to take account of 21st-century issues, such as e-commerce and the digital economy, such as climate change, the green economy and biodiversity and circular economy … the issue of women and trade and micro-, medium and small enterprise. Even technology, what technology is doing to supply chains.

“Then you’ve got to look at existing rules and see whether they are serving the purpose. There are some members who feel that some rules may be leading to circumvention and disturbing the balance of rights and obligations of members. Issues like special and differentiated treatment, which developing countries feel very strongly about [but] developed countries have a different view.

“The dispute settlement system is paralyzed. You cannot have a rules-based organization, which is the sole place where people can take their grievances and complaints, but rules are not being followed. 

“A third area I would mention is transparency and notification. Transparency is so vital to the multilateral trading system, and notification for businesses. If something is going to be done in a country,  businesses  need to know that you’re willing to take one action or another, otherwise they can’t function.

“The WTO has to start achieving more outcomes. If it doesn’t do that then people continue to see it as irrelevant. 

Q: How should the WTO address Washington’s complaint about China’s state capitalism and developing country designation?

A: Those are some critical issues that members will need to discuss and debate on. But let’s put it this way, we must make sure that all members of the WTO feel that the balance of rights and obligations for all members of the WTO is about a fair system. So, that’s why it’s important to listen to who feels it’s not fair and then restore that balance of rights and obligations that members need to undertake.”

3. Nairametrics, August 12, 2020, WTO Job: Okonjo-Iweala reveals how to resolve rift between US and China, https://nairametrics.com/2020/08/12/wto-job-okonjo-iweala-reveals-how-to-resolve-the-rift-between-us-and-china/.

“On healing the rift between the US and China, Okonjo-Iweala admitted that it is going to be challenging and not be easy. She said:

“‘Well this is not going to be easy, if it was easy, it could have been done a long time since. So it would be very challenging but it is not an impossible job. It is very clear that both the US and China have been helped and benefitted from the multilateral trading system in the past. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. They have experienced shared prosperity in the economies and their countries.’

“The Nigerian candidate pointed out that it is important to remind the US and China of this shared prosperity. She then disclosed that she would listen to both countries to find out what really are the issues causing distrust among them. She said that she will not want to be involved in the larger political problems, but will rather separate the trade issues and focus on them and build this trust.

“Going further on how to settle their rift, Okonjo-Iweala said, ‘You need to begin to find areas where there can be confidence-building and trade. Building trust is not talking about it, you have to have areas where both can work together and agree and we have a golden opportunity in the fisheries subsidies negotiations that are going on now because the US is a party to it, China is a party, the EU, all other members.’

“‘It is a multilateral negotiation, so if they can sit around the table with others to negotiate this and have a successful outcome, that is one thing that will be shared in common between the 2. So that will begin to build confidence. Then reaching out both in the US and in China to talk to the policymakers, go where the decisions are made, talk to congress also in the US and begin to show the benefits of the system again.’

“She also said they will look at reasons why they need to work together because their rift may be causing negative externalities for other members. She is of the opinion that exposing all of these, working with them, and listening carefully will begin to build confidence.

“She believes that while achieving this will be difficult, focusing seriously on trade issues can create room for a breakthrough.”

4. P.M. News, August 4, 2020, Okonjo-Iweala: My priorities as WTO chief,https://www.pmnewsnigeria.com/2020/08/04/okonjo-iweala-my-priorities-as-wto-chief/.

“’I would be focusing, if I get the job, on the dispute settlement system. Because this is the fundamental pillar of the WTO,’ Okonjo-Iweala said.

”If you have a rules-based organisation, you must have a place where rules are arbitrated and that’s what happens with the dispute settlement system. So restoring that will be a top priority as well.’

* * *

“The candidate showed her confidence to ‘find a way to unlock the seeming division’ on the trade side, between China and the United States, underlining that finding areas of mutual interest and to build trust within the WTO trading system would be important.

“’Actually, if you listen to the two members, they have some things in common,’ Okonjo-Iweala added.

“’The dispute settlement system of the WTO is valued by both, they want it to reform, they don’t want it to disappear.’

“Okonjo-Iweala also noted that she hopes China will play the role of an economic growth engine in the current COVID-19 pandemic as it did during the 2008 global financial crisis.

“’I think the best thing China can do is to recover quickly. Because it’s one of the engines of growth in the world and it’s almost a quarter of world trade,’ she told Xinhua.

“’So if it recovers quickly, it means that it can help the rest of the world recover. So that’s the role I would see for China.’”

5. Financial Times, August 4, 2020, Leading WTO candidates back US bid for system reform, Amina Mohamed and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala say American criticisms of over-reach are valid, https://www.ft.com/content/f4830e2b-df7b-474a-8104-6336992ca193.

Article also reviews Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s view that the WTO should be taking a lead on COVID-19 and should take steps to see that the early introduction of export restraints on medical goods and medicines is not repeated.

6. Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, July 22, 2020, Nigeria’s candidate: Technical skill won’t solve WTO problems, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/nigeria%E2%80%99s-candidate-technical-skill-won%E2%80%99t-solve-wto-problems.

Inside U.S. Trade has conducted interviews with each of the eight candidates. In its July 22 write-up of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s interview, the publication noted that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would see who is behind on notifications and see if the problem is due to a lack of technical capability which is a real but solvable problem for many developing countries. For those with the ability to provide notifications but who haven’t, she would see what could be done including some proposals where “sticks” have been suggested to address non-compliance.

On U.S. concerns about China’s state-run economy, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala noted that the WTO doesn’t comment on Member’s economic systems but should address the consequences to the global trading system of different economic systems. She believes the WTO should start by establishing a definition of “public body” and look at improving rules on industrial subsidies and would urge the U.S., EU and Japan to table their proposal in that regard.


The above review of comments made by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala are taken from various public documents and press articles and conferences or webinars held during the summer and early fall of 2020. The materials used are obviously not exhaustive as Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has appeared at many events that are not covered here. However, the materials provide a glimpse into how the likely next Director-General perceives the path forward on a host of issues important to WTO Members.

The WTO is an important organization facing multiple crises and a challenge to its continuing relevance. Getting a new Director-General is an important step for the organization but much will depend on the willingness of the Members to pull together to make the organization fit for purpose in the 21st century and capable of responding to rapidly evolving global issues. It is unclear that WTO Members are willing to embrace a common vision or make the changes needed to achieve the reforms and updates critical to continued relevance.

The WTO was fortunate to have so many qualified candidates come forward last year. The selection of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is important both for the skills that she brings to the organization and for the signal that it sends on global inclusiveness. Let’s hope that her tenure will be a successful one.

Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.

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