New Director General of WTO: Mission is Possible for Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

By Sayed Attia*

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first of African descent to be appointed to oversee the rules of the world trading system
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first of African descent to be appointed to oversee the rules of the world trading system

Today, March 1, 2021, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala , a former Nigerian minister of finance and a World Bank veteran will take office  as the new director of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Dr.Ngozi is the first of African descent to be appointed to oversee the rules of the world trading system.

Fortunately the key world trade players, China, USA and EU expressed their support for Dr.Ngozi, the issue that sends a positive signal that there some sort of agreement between these parties. According to Reuters, the U.S delegate at WTO, Washington is committed to working closely with Dr.Ngozi and be a “constructive partner”. Furthermore, China’s delegation pledged “full support” to her and the EU trade commissioner said he looked for forward working closely with her. However, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff heralded the arrival of a new era of WTO leadership but cautioned that “member enthusiasm, optimism and hope need to be translated into concrete action.”, according to Inside, US trade.

Amongst the diversified fields of expertise of Dr. Ngozi is her chairmanship of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance which is a public–private global health partnership with the goal of increasing access to immunization in poor countries. This background will imperatively constitute a major factor in the policy of the WTO amid the current challenge of Covid-19 pandemic. According to African Business Magazine, Dr. Ngozi assured to be the only candidate working at the intersection of trade and public health, which she says will enable the trade system to better deliver Vaccines and medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic. The facilitation of movement of Vaccine from the manufacturing countries to the needy countries is the top priority at the moment. All WTO member states should collaborate and cooperate in securing the easy movement of Vaccine across the world. 

The priorities of the WTO at this critical moment are numerous but they are not insurmountable. These priorities include completion of fisheries subsidies negations, starting negotiations on E-commerce to sustain the growth of the digital economy, and facilitate safe, secure and efficient cross-border e-payments and data flows, dispute settlement reform, and health measures at the time of diseases, such Covid-19 pandemic. As an example of the measures that be discussed in the health measures is to waive some intellectual property rights on COVID-19 medicines and vaccines to speed up their rollout to poor countries which do not have the affordability and access to medical products. Furthermore, there is a dire need to relax intellectual property (IP) rules in a manner that allow immediate scale-up of vaccine production and provision of medical products.

Global trade collapsed last year as border closures and supply disruptions interrupted the international provision of goods, therefore, the recovery requires improving business environment and multilateral cooperation to support the world’s economic recovery from COVID-19. At this critical moment, the international trade is in a dire need for more liberalization in this time more than any time before. The outbreak of COVID-19 had negative consequences on the global economy, therefore, recovering the dynamism of international trade is the sole guarantor for mitigating these consequences.

Sayed Attia is an International Trade Expert based in Cairo, Egypt.
Sayed Attia is an International Trade Expert based in Cairo, Egypt.

While the stage is being setting for a new era for the WTO and accordingly to the multilateral trading system, the situation now is better than a year before, thanks to the efforts made to manufacture of the Vaccine for Covid-19 pandemic and making it available , although on a limited scale. The global economy and trade will recover once matters back to normal. This recovery, however, is conditioned to what extent the WTO perform its full responsibility in securing ease movement of trade between member states. The WTO members to benefit from the vast experience of Dr.Ngozi in Gavi, on one hand and the commitments of large producers of Covid-19 Vaccine , such as China,  to accelerate overcoming the negative consequences of such a pandemic, on the other hand.

At the end, a strong WTO is vital for the world to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.  WTO faces a great many challenges, therefore working collectively will make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today. The mission of Dr.Ngozi as a new Director General of WTO is difficult but is not impossible as long as there a sincere will of all members to take the organization ahead. 

*Sayed Attia is an International Trade Expert based in Cairo, Egypt. This article reflects the writer’s own point of view. He has a progressive work experience as international trade practitioner of 24 years. He has a wide experience in trade remedies and trade policy formulation.  He has trade negotiations experience at regional, continental and international levels with a deep conviction of the importance of trade as an engine for inclusive and sustainable development.  Having a firm belief that deep industrialization, efficient internal infrastructure and simple, clear, trade facilitation, E-commerce and digitalization are key pillars for trade promotion. MA; MBA, and international trade PhD candidate with a large number of publications in trade, development and industrialization.

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