Leadership change at the WTO — with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s arrival next week, what support team and early changes in the role of the Secretariat could help WTO Members move forward?



Terence P Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

The special meeting of the General Council at the WTO to appoint the next Director-General is set for February 15, 2021 at 3:00 p.m. The meeting will be conducted virtually. With the actions of South Korea in withdrawing its candidate, Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, and of the United States in indicating its strong support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the General Council meeting will result in the appointment by consensus of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General. Because of the premature departure of the prior Director-General, Roberto Azevedo, and the delay in concluding the selection process started last year, it is unclear what the duration of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s first term as Director-General will be. Presumably there will be some clarification at the General Council meeting on that and any other technical issues.

A lot has been published in recent days on Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and her priorities for working with Members of the WTO to address the many challenges facing the organization. See, e.g., Time, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Believes the WTO Can Change the World. But First It Needs Reform, February 12, 2021, https://time.com/5938816/ngozi-okonjo-iweala-wto-climate-change/; Financial Times, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Nigerian powerhouse to head the WTO, February 12, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/95d66614-d8e0-4e0b-82c1-417153e2942f; Thompson Reuters Foundation News, First woman, first African: Nigeria’s ‘troublemaker’ on track to run WTO, February 12, 2021, https://news.trust.org/item/20210212184008-z02wa; Washington Post, Trump tried to block her. Now Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is about to make history, February 10, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/ngozi-okonjo-iweala-wto/2021/02/09/99e3b028-67eb-11eb-bab8-707f8769d785_story.html; France 24, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala set to make history as first woman and African to head WTO, 8 February 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/tv-shows/business-daily/20210208-ngozi-okonjo-iweala-set-to-make-history-as-first-woman-and-african-to-head-wto; New York Times, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Set to Become W.T.O.’s First Female Leader, February 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/05/business/ngozi-okonjo-iweala-world-trade-organization.html.

There are many pressing issues, including how WTO Members respond to the COVID-19 pandemic to keep markets open for medical goods and food, completing ongoing multilateral negotiations (fisheries subsidies) and plurilateral initiatives (e.g., e-commerce/digital trade, domestic regulation, etc.), a range of issues from the Doha Development Agenda that remain open, dispute settlement reform to permit the restart of the Appellate Body, broader WTO reform to name just some of the topics needing action.

An early issue for the incoming Director-General will be the composition of her immediate staff and the group of Deputies Director-General (DDGs) that will support her time as Director-General. The DG’s immediate staff will likely reflect personal choices of individuals known and/or trusted by the incoming Director-General. The process of selecting DDGs is understood to involve regional diversity (with Asia/Pacific, North America, Latin America, Europe and Africa/Middle East understood to be the five groups) and consultations with Members. Historically, the Director-General and four DDGs have come, one each from each of the five regions. The U.S. and EU have historically had one slot. With China’s rise in importance in global trade, China presumably intends for one of the positions to be reserved for a Chinese candidate. With Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala being the first African to become Director-General, absent a change in approach, the selection of DDGs will likely result in one European, one American (USA), one Asian (probably Chinese) and one Latin American. It is anticipated that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will work to increase the representation of women in the senior ranks of the WTO Secretariat. That could start obviously with her own staff and with the Deputy Director-General appointments.

With the challenges facing the WTO, it is my view that the incoming Director-General should shoot high for senior current or former government officials who can facilitate the efforts at moving WTO Members towards finding solutions to pressing issues. In that regard, selecting some of the prior candidates for Director-General, if willing to be part of the Secretariat, could provide depth of political contacts and knowledge of WTO Members. With that in mind, my suggested dream team would include the following, which respect geographical regions but give the Asia/Pacific slot to a Korean national:

Minister Amina C. Mohamed of Kenya as Chef de Cabinet. Minister Mohamed was an early favorite in the 2020 Director-General race, served as Kenya’s Ambassador to the WTO and headed the major bodies of the WTO as well as chairing the successful Nairobi Ministerial. While being from Africa would presumably prevent her from being one of the DDGs, she would make an excellent chief of staff for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea. Minister Yoo was an extremely impressive candidate for Director-General as reflected in her being a finalist. Her past success in working with large trading partners (China, EU, US) and smaller partners and the evolution of Korea as an increasingly important trading nation as it has rapidly gone up the development path would provide the new Director-General with a very strong Deputy Director-General to help accomplish the reforms needed to return the WTO to its proper role in global trade.

Anabel Gonzalez, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, has a rich history in trade for Costa Rica, the WTO, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. Her write-up on the Peterson Institute website states, “Anabel González, nonresident senior fellow since October 2018, is host of the Institute’s virtual event series. She was senior director of the World Bank’s Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice (2014–18), where she led the Bank’s agenda on trade, investment climate, competitiveness, innovation, and entrepreneurship. She previously served as minister of trade of Costa Rica (2010–14), where she headed the strategy to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, negotiated and implemented six free trade agreements, and contributed to attract over 140 foreign direct investment projects. She also had a lead role in Costa Rica’s Competitiveness and Innovation Council and was president of the Export Promotion Board. In her more than 15 years of service at the Ministry of Foreign Trade, she held several positions, including ambassador and chief negotiator of the free trade agreement between Central America and the United States (2003–04). She has also worked as director of the Agriculture Division of the World Trade Organization (2006–09); senior consultant on trade and investment, Inter-American Development Bank (2009–10);and director-general, Costa Rican Investment Promotion Agency (2001–02).” Ms. Gonzalez’s impressive background would make her an ideal DDG for a Secretariat looking to help Members find a path forward on so many pressing issues.

Amb. Alan Wolff (current DDG). Few DDGs have brought the depth of understanding of the global trading system or the ability to articulate a vision for the future or the approaches to potentially resolving challenges that DDG Wolff brings. Keeping him on as a DDG would be a major plus for the incoming Director-General.

Phil Hogan, served as European Commissioner for Trade between 2019 and 2020, and previously European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development between 2014 and 2019. He would be an excellent DDG to round out the team.

Reform of the Secretariat

One of the topics that candidates for the Director-General discussed during the 2020 selection process was whether the WTO membership needed to give the Secretariat some additional authority to facilitate forward movement in an organization that now has 164 Members with more in the accession process.

In the Washington International Trade Association annual event earlier this week, DDG Wolff provided his thoughts on what those reforms might include. See WTO press release, DDG Wolff — WTO must demonstrate soon it can deliver, 9 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_09feb21_e.htm. His comments provided ten important actions WTO Members need to take to restore relevance. The tenth dealt with WTO governance, and the past few paragraphs are copied below.

The WTO Director-General and the professional proactive secretariat that she leads must be given a clear mandate to serve as an effective executive for the Members

The WTO Secretariat should assure transparency and become the primary source of trade data that Members need in order to make better-informed policy

It should engage in active monitoring of trade policies and measures, informing Members of potential problems with current practices and anticipating future challenges

The Director-General should use the convening power of her office to bridge differences, making proposals where needed and driving toward positive agreed outcomes

The Secretariat should dedicate resources to strategic foresight and have a policy planning office.  It must be prepared to meet challenges seen and not yet seen.”. 

The new Director-General should work with Members quickly to see if the above governance modifications can be agreed to either on a trial basis or on a permanent basis. The existing structure needs reform to facilitate Member movement on a host of important issues.

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

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