Great News for the WTO – and for the Multilateralism of Today

Good news keeps coming on the US return to multilateralism: The selection of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the next Director-General of the World Trade Organization has finally been cleared for official approval by the WTO General Council (which is now scheduled for 15 February 2021). Just a week ago, two different but coordinated announcements were issued. One came from the Korean government announcing the withdrawal of their candidate, Yoo Myung-hee; the other came from the Biden administration announcing that the US would join the rest of the consensus of the WTO members in support of the Nigerian candidate, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This was a truly diplomatic way to clear the way for the one without embarrassing the other.

I am personally pleased to congratulate Ms. Okonjo-Iweala on her impending success, and I congratulate Ms. Yoo Myung-hee and the other candidates for the gracious manner in which they welcomed the outcome. What a contrast to the domestic scene in the US!  Above and beyond this contrast, however, I would like to focus this note more broadly on what Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership means for the WTO – and for the changing world of multilateralism.

First and most importantly, the choice is a positive development for the WTO on a number of symbolic fronts. Ngozi`s personal credentials are outstanding – a stellar academic and professional record and outstanding leadership skills.  But she also brings additional groundbreaking characteristics as the first woman as well as the first African to head the WTO, and interestingly the first dual citizen (Nigeria and US).  Technically, these characteristics should have no bearing on her performance, but they are still significant.

I was personally involved some years ago in a previous effort to mobilize the WTO membership behind an African candidate, to no avail, and I have been among the Geneva Gender Champions promoting gender balance in the international setting. So I do believe that these geographic and gender milestones do matter. And while it has not been widely publicized, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s dual citizenship should serve as a cross-cultural frame of reference that is similar to the orientation of “TCKs” (Third-Culture Kids aka Global Nomads), of which group I am one. (By the way, this also applies to the new US Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who grew up in France and the US but also had strong connections with Hungary). I do believe that this orientation and ability to relate to people of diverse backgrounds has helped Ms. Okonjo-Iweala attract the support of key WTO members like China and the European Union – and now, at last, the US.

The full plate of issues facing the WTO is long and daunting – with a  lingering set of long-standing ones like the crisis in the WTO’s dispute settlement system or the limping nature of the Doha Development Round or the outdated structure of special and differential treatment for developing countries.  And then there are the “newer” issues – the pandemic, of course, but also things like e-commerce or investment facilitation or even more broadly, climate change. The experts abound, old and new, and I defer to them on the nuances of this very full menu. I can appreciate that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala will have her hands full both with the unique culture and idiosyncrasies of trade negotiators and with the diversity of interests among its members where she needs to help find the common ground of “win-win” solutions.

But I do have some views on the significance of Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s WTO leadership role from two more overarching perspectives – (1) where the WTO is bring challenged to broaden its relationship with other international organizations on a variety of trade-relevant policies  and (2) what the WTO itself can and should be doing to accommodate the changing array of stakeholders on trade and development. What I mean is that both the multi-sectoral nature of the issues and the multi-stakeholder nature of the actors make it an opportune time for the very broad leadership potential that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala will bring to the WTO.

The Multi-Sectoral Context

Trade policy should promote not just free trade but trade that is mutually beneficial to all participants and for the greater common good of global development, whatever one might choose to mean by that term. This overall perspective of benefit depends on an appreciation for the interplay with other elements of global economic and social significance – and with increasingly the whole range of domestic policies that determine the extent to which international flows work well for the common good. So someone with the experience of bringing people together from different perspectives in health, in finance, in development, is ideal for the WTO going forward.

The fact that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala worked on development at the World Bank for many years should aid in appreciating the changes needed in the WTO’s approach to special and differential treatment of developing countries, to be sure. Her more recent leadership role with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance is even more pertinent to the interplay of trade with global health, especially in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.  As the most immediate priority for the WTO to address, the organization has not only the challenge of enabling  trade in  essential health products for the pandemic, but it also has the challenge of how to enable the global access and distribution of these products.  This requires both changes within the WTO’s traditional trade policy framework and in WTO’s relations with other international organizations.

An important sub-group at the WTO, called the Ottawa Group because of its Canadian leadership, has been deliberating on a WTO reform agenda for some time now. More recently, it put forward a set of proposals around a Trade and Health Initiative that can serve as a starting point for immediate actions that could be taken by the WTO.  I leave this list for your perusal here, but I am especially impressed that it also contains a strong recommendation for WTO collaboration with other international organizations. On the health issues of the pandemic, this clearly applies to WTO relations with the World Health Organization and its ACT-Accelerator on COVID-19 tools )including the COVAX Facility), but it also spills over into a broader range of international organizations, including the World Bank and OECD and even the G-20.  One can hope that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala will be able to run with this particular recommendation and maybe even see a real and coordinated movement toward the global sharing of vaccines and other health products.

The Multi-Stakeholder Context

The new multilateralism also encompasses another feature of the global political scene with regard to which Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s experiences are particularly relevant.  And that is the remarkable collaboration of philanthropies, the private sector, academia and civil society in the global response to the pandemic. The idea that one can supplement formal decision-making processes like the governance at the WHO with constructive engagement of cross-national stakeholders like the ACT-Accelerator initiative on COVID-19 continues to be an active interest of mine. And it applies here to the future of the WTO under its new leader.

Ever since the Seattle debacle of the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference which broke down over both agricultural and labor issues (and a destructive protest movement), the WTO has been convening an annual public forum. This was an important effort to reach out to different stakeholders beyond the immediate environment of trade negotiators. I was among the early organizers of multi-stakeholder participation at these annual public forums – and other similar events. But they have all been separated from the WTO’s formal deliberations, with strict barriers that have effectively kept all non-state actors isolated from the formalities.

This is different from many other international organizations, including the ILO with its formal tripartite governance but also with less formalized but still participatory arrangements that have evolved over the past couple of decades at the UN itself or at the FAO and its Committee on Food Security – or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The increasing involvement of private sector, civil society, academia and philanthropies in global health initiatives like the ACT-Accelerator and the Vaccine Alliance is only the most recent example of this. Although this kind of more structured collaboration has yet to be replicated at the WTO, Ms. Iweala-Okonjo’s experience with  GAVI and the setting up of the COVAX Facility there should serve her well in exploring ways to adapt the approach to the WTO.  I welcome the prospects for more regularized stakeholder engagement at the WTO.

In conclusion, the multilateralism of today is both multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral, and the WTO is indeed fortunate to have someone at the helm with an appreciation for these trends. Congratulations and Best Wishes to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala!

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