WTO keen to tackle economic, health crisis

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria's first woman and longest serving finance minister, who also is a US citizen.

19 February 2021 | Economics

The private sector has already looked for a solution because they want to be part of reaching poor countries and people. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Head: World Trade Organization (WTO)

HEATHER SCOTT

Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, newly selected head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), said she will push for concrete results in addressing the dual economic and health crises facing the globe.

Her immediate goals are to ensure vaccines are produced and distributed worldwide, not just for rich nations, and to resist the push towards protectionism that worsened during the pandemic, so that free trade can help the economic recovery.

"I think the WTO is too important to allow it to be slowed down, paralyzed and moribund," she told AFP in an interview.

She will take over leadership on March 1 of an institution that has become weighed down and increasingly defanged, especially by the open hostility of Donald Trump's administration.

Amid the turmoil, including the US move that shutdown the dispute resolution court in December 2019 about complaints about handling of disputes with China, her predecessor stepped down last August, a year before his term was up.

Selected by the membership on Monday, after US President Joe Biden's administration backed her candidacy, Okonjo-Iweala promised to breathe fresh life into the trade body which she says has lost focus on helping improve living conditions for real people.

Trade rules

"I believe the WTO can contribute more strongly to a resolution of the Covid-19 pandemic by helping to improve access accessibility and affordability of vaccines to poor countries," she said.

"It's really in the self-interest of every country to see everyone vaccinated because you're not safe until everyone is safe."

Some countries, such as India and South Africa, have been pushing for a suspension of trade rules on patents to allow more rapid vaccine rollout.

But rather than get caught in another squabble among WTO members, Okonjo-Iweala said the organization could promote a quicker path.

"Instead of spending time arguing on those we should look at what the private sector is doing" with licensing agreements, to allow vaccines to be produced in multiple countries something she noted AstraZeneca already has done in India.

"The private sector has already looked for a solution because they want to be part of reaching poor countries and poor people," she said. -Nampa/AFP

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