WTO’s four Deputy Directors-General tenure reportedly concludes at the end of March 2021 — thanks for an outstanding job



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

A press account earlier this week (March 2) indicated that “New World Trade Organization Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala yesterday apparently conveyed to her four existing deputy director generals that their tenure will not be continued
beyond the end of this month.” See Washington Trade Daily, March 2, 2021, page 7, .https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/ed93e180-7dee-4beb-8629-0e73d4d0ea5c.pdf.

It is normal for existing Deputy Directors-Generals (DDGs) to depart shortly after the arrival of a new Director-General and to be selected before the new Director-General takes office. Indeed, typically DDGs have four year terms that start one month after the Director-General’s term. Pursuant to procedures adopted in late 2002, DDGs employment starts later and ends later than the DG’s. SeePROCEDURES FOR THE APPOINTMENT OF DIRECTORS-GENERAL, Adopted by the General Council on 10 December 2002, WT/L/509 (20 January 2003) at para. 22 (“In order to ensure continuity at the senior management level, the terms of office of the Director-General and of the Deputy Directors-General shall be staggered, such that the terms of the Deputies expire subsequent to the expiry of the Director-General’s term.”). Because of the short time from appointment (February 15, 2021) to start (March 1, 2021) as Director-General for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, presumably the DDG selection process was delayed until after she took up her position on March 1.

While all DDGs will likely be new, it is possible for a new Director-General to keep on one or more of the DDGs. See WTO, Director-General Elect Azevêdo announces his four Deputy Directors-General, 17 August 2013, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news13_e/dgsel_17aug13_e.htm {(Director-General elect, Roberto Azevêdo has announced the appointment of Yi Xiaozhun of China, Karl-Ernst Brauner of Germany, Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria and David Shark of the United States as his four Deputies Director-General. The new Director-General will begin his term on 1 September while his deputies begin service on 1 October 2013.”); WTO, Lamy announces his four Deputy Directors-General, 29 July 2005, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/pres05_e/pr415_e.htm (“Mr. Lamy, who assumes office on 1 September, told the General Council in a statement that he has selected Alejandro Jara of Chile, Valentine Rugwabiza of Rwanda, Harsha Singh of India and Rufus Yerxa of the United States. Their terms of office will begin on 1 October.” “Mr. Yerxa, a former Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, has served the last three years as Deputy Director-General to Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi.”).

Three of the four current DDGs have served since October 1, 2013 and their second four year term would have ended September 30, 2021 but for the early departure of the prior Director-General Roberto Azevedo. Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria, Karl Brauner of Germany and Yi Xiaozhum of China are the three current DDGs who have served more than seven years. Alan Wolff of the United States is the fourth DDG and has served since October 1, 2017. Their backgrounds, areas of responsibility and press articles on the WTO webpage can be found here. WTO, The Deputy Directors-General, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/dg_e/ddg_ra_e.htm

With the early departure of DG Azevedo, the agreed selection process for a new Director-General calls for the Members to select one of the four DDGs to serve as an Acting DG if there is a gap period between departure and appointment of a new Director-General. See PROCEDURES FOR THE APPOINTMENT OF DIRECTORS-GENERAL, Adopted by the General Council on 10 December 2002, WT/L/509 (20 January 2003) at para. 23 (“In the event of a vacancy in the post of Director-General, the General Council shall designate one of the existing Deputy Directors-General to serve as Acting Director-General until the appointment of a new Director-General. The Chair of the General Council shall initiate, as soon as possible, a process for appointment of a new Director-General, in keeping with the procedures set out herein, and may establish expedited deadlines as necessary in consultation with Members.”).

However, in 2020, WTO Members were not able to agree on which of the four DDGs should serve as an Acting Director-General. As a result Members asked the four DDGs to stay on and jointly handle the management responsibilities. See WTO, General Council agrees guidelines for final stage of DG selection, 31 July 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/gc_31jul20_e.htm(“The decision to extend the terms of the four Deputy Directors-General came after consultative efforts had been made to designate one of them as Acting Director-General until a new Director-General takes office. Amb. Walker explained once again to members that choosing an Acting Director-General was “very much a housekeeping matter to facilitate the continued running of the organization” as the membership focused on choosing the new Director-General. But consultations did not yield a consensus on which of the four should be designated as Acting Director-General, so Amb. Walker proposed instead that all four DDGs stay on and continue their existing responsibilities until such time as the new Director-General takes office. During this period, all four DDGs will consult closely with the members as represented by the General Council chair. Amb. Walker underscored that during this interim phase, no structural changes will be made to the WTO Secretariat. Amb. Walker also stated that he remained open to consult with members.”).

The four DDGs and the entire Secretariat staff has carried on the work of the WTO in exceptional fashion for the last six months, receiving praise from WTO Members at the February 15, 2021 Special Session of the General Council to appoint the new Director-General. DDG Wolff on February 25, 2021 at an informal TNC and Heads of Delegation thanked Members for their praise and provided an overview of the activities of the organization during the six months where the four DDGs had been asked to shepherd the organization’s activities. See WTO, DDG Wolff calls on members to work with new Director-General to reform WTO, 25 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_25feb21_e.htm. The paragraph reflecting praise from the Members appears below.

“I wish to take note of the thanks many of you expressed to the four Deputy Directors-General in your statements welcoming Dr Ngozi at last week’s meeting. We take that always as words of thanks for the Secretariat as a whole, our Directors and their professional and administrative staff, who bring great experience and talent to the tasks that lie ahead, as well as to the DGO members whom we asked to continue to serve during this period.  I also recognize the General Council chair, Ambassador David Walker, who has during these past six months always been available to the four DDGs, even during the intensive DG selection process.” 

The excerpts from his presentation that deals with the activities of the Secretariat during the six month period is copied below. As the length suggests, the WTO Secretariat has been very busy over the last six months.

“I will now provide a few highlights of Secretariat activities during the past few months. 

“In these unusual times, faced with the pandemic, the first responsibility of the Secretariat was to safeguard the health of the members and Secretariat staff while keeping the WTO and its functions running. To our knowledge, there have been no on-site transmissions of COVID-19.  Staff presence in the WTO buildings has been kept to a minimum following the guidelines of the Swiss authorities. 

“There have nevertheless been some serious illnesses among missions and the Secretariat. Loved ones have been lost. I wish to convey our heartfelt condolences to all who have lost a relative, a friend, or a colleague. 

“Due to the current health precautions, there are now no in-person WTO meetings. Only a few in-person meetings took place, in consultation with the Swiss authorities, during the last half of 2020 and so far this year up to and including this meeting. The lack of in-person meetings has not meant that activities ceased. On the contrary, the Secretariat and members moved into a higher gear:

“Intensive monitoring continued to keep members up to date on trade measures, both trade-restrictive and trade-facilitating.

“Nearly two dozen information notes have been circulated since last April, downloaded in total over 300,000 times. Ranked by those downloaded most often were:

E-commerce, trade and the COVID-19 pandemic;

Trade in Medical Goods in the Context of Tackling COVID-19;

Export prohibitions and restrictions; and

Trade in services in the context of the pandemic

“The most recent note, issued in December, is entitled Developing and delivering COVID-19 vaccines around the world: An information note about issues with trade impact.

“With the information provided from monitoring and information notes, members were in a position to make better-informed decisions.

“During the six-month interim period, through mid-February, members held 417 meetings. These included meetings of the General Council, the Dispute Settlement Body, the Trade Policy Review Body, and the Councils for Trade in Goods, TRIPS and Trade in Services, other WTO committees, the Joint Statement Initiatives and 106 meetings of dispute settlement panels. In short, members were highly active.

“Trade Policy Reviews were held for Zimbabwe; Thailand; Indonesia; Macao, China; India; Nicaragua; and Myanmar.

“A flagship annual market access study was produced to track developments in LDC trade during the pandemic. Studies were prepared on the utilization of trade preferences by LDCs. 

“Despite there being no in-person training and technical assistance, the WTO’s Institute for Technical Training held 20 national activities, 12 regional and one global activity. This does not count the technical assistance of many of the other WTO divisions.

“Internship and young professional programs continued.

“During the interim period, each month there were an average of 38 meetings of dispute settlement panels and arbitrations, with four new cases brought, three new panels composed and five panel reports issued. Virtual meetings of panels had up to 60 participants when third parties were present.

“The TBT Committee received 1,800 notifications, with members discussing 160 specific trade concerns. The e-agenda platform allowed an intensification of work, and the number of ePing subscribers crossed 13,000. Training events on standards continued across all regions. 

“Over the last six months, there has been considerable engagement by members on trade and environment issues. A high-level event co-hosted by the WTO and UNEP had 282 participants on Zoom, and received over 6,600 views with much public engagement, including across WTO social media channels. Two new member-led initiatives were launched: a Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussion (TESSD) and an Informal dialogue on plastics pollution and environmentally sustainable plastics trade. The Secretariat has also been very active in organizing trade and environment training and participating in capacity building events.

“Of course, clearly, the most noteworthy activity was the DG selection process. Due to the pandemic, it was conducted through very carefully choreographed in-person meetings with the General Council Chair, Ambassador David Walker, and the two facilitators, Ambassador Dacio Castillo and Ambassador Harald Aspelund.

“Last, but not least, the CBFA gavelled in a budget for 2021, providing a measure of certainty in what looked like uncertain times.

DDG Activities

“In addition to being responsible for the divisions reporting to them, the four DDGs acted on administrative matters that would normally be referred to the Director-General. I can report that this process worked smoothly and collegially. 

“We led efforts to  prepare for the transition, with detailed briefing of the incoming Director-General. 

“In January, I represented the WTO at the traditional informal ministerial gathering on WTO issues hosted by Switzerland every January, this time online, rather than in Davos. My very brief remarks and the Chair’s summary were posted on the WTO’s website.  Ambassador Chambovey will report on the meeting.

“My other speaking engagements included addresses to Agriculture Ministers at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, as well as to Chatham House in London and the Washington International Trade Association.  

“My colleague DDGs and I have also maintained contacts with Ambassadors here in Geneva and particularly the Chair of the General Council, Ambassador David Walker.”


While the WTO is facing a series of crises, there is an extraordinary group of people within the Secretariat, starting with the four Deputy Directors-General, who work effectively and tirelessly to support the 164 WTO Members, all those seeking to accede, and interfacing with NGOs, businesses, the media and public. The four DDGs are normally less visible than has been true in the last six months. Indeed, each of the DDGs has had extensive outreach opportunities during their tenure as can be seen from the news item link on The Deputy Directors-General webpage ( https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/dg_e/ddg_ra_e.htm). DDG Wolff, for example, has 51 news articles on the WTO news webpage just since September 1, 2020 (i.e., when the four DDGs collectively ran the WTO). This compares to 21 press articles in the first eight months of 2020, 34 press articles in 2019, 32 in 2018 and 4 in the October – December 2017 period — a total of 142 WTO press articles (most about speeches or statements DDG Wolff made to groups) in just three years and five months. In the history of the WTO there has not been a more visible or articulate DDG than Alan Wolff. But each of the DDGs has been active and highly supportive of the WTO’s mission during their tenure. They all deserve the thanks not only of the Missions in Geneva but also all those who want a relevant WTO going forward.

In a prior post, I had suggested that DG Okonjo-Iweala can help her efforts to obtain meaningful reform at the WTO by picking a strong set of DDGs who can expand her reach. See February 13, 2021, 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?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/13/leadership-change-at-the-wto-with-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iwealas-arrival-next-week-what-support-team-and-early-changes-in-the-role-of-the-secretariat-could-help-wto-members-move-forward/.

Whoever is selected to be the next Deputy Directors-General, I join the many well-wishers in Geneva and in capitals in sending heartfelt thanks to the current DDGs for their efforts while at the WTO. You have helped keep the multilateral trading system ship afloat in very turbulent waters.

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