Facing an existential crisis, the World Trade Organisation needs a leader that can take office with “fresh eyes” and a reform-oriented approach, according to Nigeria’s candidate for the director-general role, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She believes she’s the one who can deliver.
As of last Wednesday, Okonjo-Iweala was one of five candidates looking to succeed Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, who will step down at the end of August, a year early.
The other four are Jesús Seade of Mexico, Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt, Tudor Ulianovschi of Moldova and Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea.
Okonjo-Iweala entered the race earlier last month with perhaps the most robust international political bona fides as Nigeria’s former – and longest-serving – finance minister, and the former managing director, the number-two position, of the World Bank.
Couple that resume with early backing from the Economic Community of West African States, a group of 15 African countries, and Okonjo-Iweala is widely seen as a strong early contender.
A longtime developmental economist, Okonjo-Iweala said trade issues have been central to her career despite the word, “finance” in the title of one of her most notable positions.
“I’ve been with trade all my career,” she said in an interview with Inside U.S. Trade.
“I think maybe because of the title ‘finance minister,’ people think it is just about finance.”
However, she said, in Nigeria customs were part of the finance minister’s portfolio and, more broadly, she worked closely with the trade minister in many areas.
She also pointed to trade policy reform programs she worked on at the World Bank.
“I bring that trade experience, actually on the ground,” she argued.
“It’s not theory. It’s that I’ve done it through my job at the World Bank and through my job as a finance minister.”
Trade is a critical part of development for countries, she added. As the center of the international trading system, the WTO is “one of the most important multilateral organisations,” she said.
Okonjo-Iweala argued that the director-general role requires more than facility with trade policy. Because the organisation is membership-based – and the director-general position is bestowed with little power of its own – whoever takes on the role must have “very strong political and negotiating skills,” she said.
“The DG does not have direct power, but works through influence,” she continued.
“So, you really need someone who can straddle different sides of a negotiation and, through influence and building trust, deliver on the job.”
To Okonjo-Iweala, her somewhat outsider status at the WTO is a benefit. It can be hard to see problems clearly when entrenched in them, she said, but coming in from the outside can lend fresh perspective.
“I’m a fresh pair of eyes,” she said. “I’m not from the WTO – I haven’t done my career there – but I know trade issues. I can approach things from a fresh set of eyes and look at what are the opportunities, where can we make progress.”
Okonjo-Iweala would be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO – and both distinctions, she believes, would be beneficial for a director-general.
Perhaps most importantly, given the geopolitical tensions between two of the largest WTO members – the U.S. and China – an African can be an “objective observer,” she said. Africa “can help straddle these gaps and divides,” she added.
Okonjo-Iweala said she can, “put my ego in my pocket,” arguing that skill is vital when identifying an issue and looking for solutions.
It also requires being a good listener, she argued, which involves more than just meeting with a member – it’s more about understanding the root of the concern from all sides, she added.
With the U.S. and China, for instance, she said the key would be to identify overlapping areas of interest to find incremental steps of building trust.
The director-general’s office needs someone committed to reform, “and a track record to go with it,” she argued, citing her own history of reform and deal making, particularly in Nigeria.
She outlined where she saw opportunities for reform at the WTO: Revitalising the largely paralysed negotiating arm, establishing “clear mandates” for dispute settlement, improving transparency and notification obligations, enhancing the effectiveness of the regular bodies and improving Secretariat efficiency to better support members.
Addressing the negotiating arm, she pointed to what she called the “core principles” of the WTO: non-discrimination, predictability and fairness.
Members should enact reforms that “restore” these principles, she said. But she added that the WTO rulebook clearly needs updating as well – both strengthened rules and negotiated new ones. She cited digital trade and the “green economy” as areas ripe for common ground among members.
Dispute settlement will pose one of the biggest challenges for the next director-general. The U.S. has torpedoed the Appellate Body for the time being – with no intentions of easing up – while other major economies are operating under their own interim system. Citing her discussions on the subject with members and other stakeholders, Okonjo-Iweala said it was obvious to her that all members want WTO dispute settlement.
However, she also noted that “it is clear we need to revamp” the system.
While it is “commendable” that some members have fashioned an interim plan, she said, “what we really want is a system that everyone will buy in to and trust and use.”
This will require defining mandates “very clearly” to establish the bounds in which the Appellate Body must operate, she said.
Noting her managerial experience at the multilateral institution level, she said she would join the Secretariat with the aim of ensuring it supported members as efficiently as possible so they could be effective in negotiating.
This would include supporting members in implementing WTO obligations as well as monitoring that implementation.
“I really do believe in this organization,” she concluded.
“This is a bit of an existential moment. And I’m someone who has a reform record and energy and passion to do it.”
Culled from insidetrade.com