Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala took the helm of the WTO today, March 1, as Director-General and outlined at the beginning of the first day of a two day General Council meeting the need for change at the organization and how Members address the many challenges before them. In a post last week, I had looked at some of the challenging issues confronting the WTO and the new Director-General (DG), some within the General Council agenda. See February 26, 2021, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s first week on the job starts with a two day General Council meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/26/wto-director-general-ngozi-okonjo-iwealas-first-week-on-the-job-starts-with-a-two-day-general-council-meeting/.
The statement by DG Okonjo-Iweala can be found on the WTO webpage. See WTO, DG Okonjo-Iweala: WTO can deliver results if members “accept we can do things differently”, 1 March 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/spno_e/spno1_e.htm. Her comments started with thanks to the Members, to the troika of Chairs that had worked the DG selection process, to the four Deputy Directors-General who had managed the organization since the end of August and to the WTO Secretariat staff. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala reviewed the need for doing things differently, the fact that in a Member driven-organization, movement would require efforts by all, and her view based on discussions that the WTO was viewed as less relevant since it has been unable to deliver results. Her comments on the challenges to relevance are copied below.
“I have said it. It cannot be business as usual. We have to change our approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results. Excellencies, many of you put in long hours and a great deal of effort to do good work much of which goes unnoticed. There are excellent people in the capitals doing good work. We have talented staff in the Secretariat. But the world is no longer cognizant of this, does not recognize the effort because we are not delivering results at the pace required by our fast-changing environment. Last week at the TNC, several Ambassadors said that You Excellencies talk past each other. You don’t talk to each other. This approach has to change. We have to be more accountable to the people we came here to serve — the ordinary women and men, our children who hope that our work here to support the MTS, will result in meaningful change in their lives, will improve their standard of living, and create decent jobs for those who seek work.
“Excellencies, coming from the outside I have noticed that the world is leaving the WTO behind. Leaders and decision makers are impatient for change. Several Trade Ministers said to me that if things don’t change, they will no longer attend the Ministerial because it is a waste of their time. I have noticed that more and more of the work and decision making that should be undertaken at the WTO is being done elsewhere because there is an increasing loss of confidence in the ability of the WTO to produce results. But there is hope. If we all accept that we can no longer do business as usual, that will help us create the parameters for success.”
DG Okonjo-Iweala then reviewed the long list of issues of importance to various parts of the WTO Membership and the need to achieve deliverables by the 12th Ministerial Conference. After her speech, the date and venue of the 12th Ministerial Conference were taken up as agenda item 4 and a decision taken to hold the Ministerial Conference the week of November 29 in Geneva with the Kazakhstan trade minister chairing the Ministerial Conference (Kazkhstan had offered to host in 2020 and again in 2021 including in December). See WTO, Twelfth Ministerial Conference to take place in Geneva in late 2021, 1 March 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/minis_01mar21_e.htm.
For DG Okonjo-Iweala it is important that the WTO membership have an achievable agenda for the upcoming Ministerial Conference (MC), which means not attempting too much. However, the list of “deliverables” DG Okonjo-Iweala outlined is significant as well as the group of issues on which agreed work programs should be ready for adoption at the MC. Here is what DG Okonjo-Iweala outlined as the hoped-for focus.
“Therefore, we must work hard to complete a few deliverables before MC12 so that Ministers can focus on ratifying agreements and agreeing best methods for implementation. In this regard, we need to prioritize action on COVID-19 both for the immediate and longer term and focus on completing Fisheries Subsidies negotiations before the middle of the year. We must agree the road map for reform of the Dispute Settlement System and prepare a work program to achieve this which can be endorsed at MC12. On Agriculture, let us identify a few things we can deliver such as PSH, SSM, Cotton, and the WFP Humanitarian waiver which is material to our Pacific Island economies as we heard a few days ago. We must put forward a subsidies work program both on domestic support and industrial subsidies which can be agreed on at MC12. We must sharpen our approach to SDT bearing in mind how crucial this is to the policy space of Least Developed Countries in particular. For the rest, let us review the work on e-commerce, investment facilitation, Services Domestic Regulation, MSMEs, Women in Trade, and Trade and Climate to see what aspects of these important work programs we can advance at MC12. So in short, I am suggesting three or four clear deliverables finalized before MC12 and work programs for the rest to be agreed at MC12.”
DG Okonjo-Iweala then turned to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, more specifically getting the world vaccinated. She noted the proposal by India and South Africa (supported by many developing countries) for a waiver from TRIPS obligations for medical goods during the pandemic. A status report from the TRIPS Council on the proposed waiver is agenda item 6. DG Okonjo-Iweala argues that time is of the essence and that while WTO Members deal with the waiver proposal, efforts should be made to ramp up global production and distribution, noting the challenges facing COVAX in delivering vaccines to low- and middle-income countries and the gross shortfall between global vaccine capacities and global vaccine needs. It is not clear what direct role the WTO has or should have in working with companies to expand production or to encourage additional licensing, but certainly there is a role for governments collaborating on the issue and for multilateral organizations to collaborate and develop information on current and planned capacities, existing licensing arrangements (as there are some in existence already). Here is what DG Okonjo-Iweala said.
“Permit me Ladies and Gentlemen to spend just a little time on COVID-19. We have a demand for a TRIPS waiver by a growing number of developing countries and the dialogue is intensifying. Whilst this is happening, I propose that we ‘walk and chew gum’ by also focusing on the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries that have yet to vaccinate a single person. People are dying in poor countries. We just had our first COVAX shipment to Ghana last week and others will follow but it will not be enough. There is serious supply scarcity and some countries are out bidding COVAX and diverting supplies. The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses. This is just very difficult, so we must focus on working with companies to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries. We must get them to work with us on know how and technology transfer now. There will soon be a world manufacturing convention where we can seek to build this partnership. I also hope we can initiate a dialogue and information exchange between us and representatives of manufacturers associations from developing and developed countries. Excellencies, this should happen soon so we can save lives. As I said at the beginning, this will be an interim solution whilst we continue the dialogue on the TRIPS waiver.”
The General Council meeting runs through tomorrow March 2. While much of a General Council meeting is simply reporting developments in various areas, it is also an opportunity for Members to stake out positions and measure the sense of openness to agenda items by the WTO membership. There is no doubt that WTO Members expressed great enthusiasm and hope for the new Director-General. Whether that will translate into Members working differently to obtain solutions and find compromises is unknown at this point but seems unlikely with the deep divisions and differences of views on objectives for the WTO held by Members. The new DG clearly will be pushing Members to proceed in a more collaborative and solution-finding mode. Her own list of objectives for MC12 is quite ambitious and includes items that are very controversial to many. Her wanting WTO involvement in considering vaccine production and distribution levels is more consistent with her prior role at GAVI and her background as a development economist than her current role as WTO DG. Finding a comfort zone for WTO Members to act within the WTO, other than the consideration of the waiver proposal, on such issues may prove to be challenging. What is clear is that the new DG is looking forward to working with Members to return the WTO to greater relevance. Her opening statement at the General Council meeting says she will be urging Members to get out of their comfort zones. Fingers crossed that she is successful.
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