Okonjo-Iweala’s job ‘no bed of roses’

Hopes abound that Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will be able to help the WTO address a range of towering challenges, including navigating through the global economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.

02 March 2021 | Economics

The WTO is like George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, where some animals are more equal than others. - Dr Omu Kakujaha-Matundu, Senior economics lecturer: Unam

The appointment of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the first African and first female chief of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is good news for the continent, but her job is “no bed of roses”.

Okonjo-Iweala, who yesterday took office as the director-general of the WTO, will “face what we as Africans are facing at all other institutions like the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank – asymmetric power relations with the superpowers”, said Dr Omu Kakujaha-Matundu, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Namibia (Unam).

The WTO is like “George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, where some animals are more equal than others”, Kakujaha-Matundu said in an interview on Africa Good Morning, the daily news show of Namibia Media Holdings (NMH). Industrialised countries have a lot of influence over institutions like the WTO, he added.

The international news agency AFP reported that questions remain as to whether Okonjo-Iweala, considered a strong-willed trailblazer, will be able to mould the organisation in her image.

“While some observers voice hope that Okonjo-Iweala will inject much-needed energy, others stress she has little wiggle room to make dramatic changes, given that WTO decisions are made by member states - and only when they can reach consensus,” AFP said.

Kakujaha-Matundu believes the issue of agricultural subsidies will be one of Okonjo-Iweala’s toughest challenges. Rich countries subsidising their agricultural products mean Africa can’t compete and is pushing “millions and millions of Africans deeper into poverty”, he said.

‘READY TO GO’

Okonjo-Iweala told AFP she was eager to get straight to work.

"I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do," the former Nigerian finance and foreign minister said as she arrived for her first day on the job in Geneva.

"I feel ready to go."

Hopes abound that the 66-year-old will be able to help the WTO address a range of towering challenges, including navigating through the global economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.

"The WTO is too important to allow it to be slowed down, paralysed and moribund," she told AFP a day after her nomination last month.

Ngozi hit the ground running, with her first day on the job coinciding with the annual meeting of the WTO's General Council.

"I am hoping to be able to listen in and see what delegations have to say, what ambassadors have to say, about the key issues," she told journalists about her expectations for her first day.

Delegates were expected to agree that the organisation's next ministerial conference, which had been scheduled for last year but was postponed due to the pandemic, will be held in Geneva in December.

PROTECTIONISM

Ngozi has said she is keen to push long-blocked trade talks on fishery subsidies across the finish line in time for the ministerial conference, but with negotiations dragging on, that could be a tough sell.

And in the midst of a global economic crisis, she has plenty of other challenges on her plate.

She has voiced particular concern about growing protectionism and nationalism during the coronavirus crisis and insists that trade barriers must be lowered to help the world recover.

Among the issues discussed yesterday is a controversial push for the WTO to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

Dozens of nations say this would help boost production and access and would rein in the pandemic sooner, but the notion has been fiercely rejected by pharmaceutical giants and the countries that host them.

Ngozi chaired the Gavi vaccine alliance before running for the WTO and has made tackling the pandemic one of her priorities.

FLEXIBILITY

In a likely bid to avoid a row on day one, Ngozi has called for flexibility, encouraging voluntary licensing agreements, such as the one agreed between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India, whereby the SII factory manufactures the pharmaceutical giant's Covid-19 vaccines.

The Ottawa Group, which brings together the EU and 12 countries including Brazil, Canada and Switzerland, will meanwhile demand that countries commit not to hindering the flow of medical goods during the pandemic, and removing customs duties on those considered essential.

Another daunting challenge facing the new director-general will be following through on her vow to breathe life back into the appeals branch of the WTO's dispute settlement system.

The Appellate Body, sometimes called the supreme court of world trade, ground to a halt in December 2019 after years of relentless US opposition.

The United States, along with European countries and Canada, also want an overhaul at the WTO, believing it has not responded correctly to the trade distortions caused by China. – Own report and Nampa/AFP

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