NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: I Have All it Takes to be WTO DG

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigeria’s former Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is the country’s candidate for the position of the Director General of the World Trade Organisation, immediately after her interview with the global trade body’s General Council on Wednesday, spoke to journalists about her plan for the organisation as well as on other issues about the WTO. Obinna Chima and Dike Onwuamaeze bring the excerpts:

Can you make a brief comment about your candidacy?

All I want to say is that trade is important for the 21st century, it is important for sustainable growth and resilience and the WTO is at the heart of this. So, we want to rejuvenate and reform the WTO to be the organisation that it ought to be for the 21st century.

There are three candidates for Africa which appears like there is a divide in the continent. Are you concerned about this?

I will not say there is a sense of divide. I will say that I am proud of my continent for producing three good candidates and it is up to the members to choose on merit from all the candidates. So, I don’t think it is a divide. Of course, I hope I am the candidate that is chosen and is backed because I think I have qualifications and the leadership characteristics to do the job. I am sure Africa will come behind my candidacy.

In your view, how will you describe the role of the WTO Director General?

The WTO DG has no direct decision-making authority. But the WTO DG can work to make things move along through influence and that influence can be proactive. And that is the kind of DG that I intend to be if I am selected, to use that proactively to work with members, to deliver outcomes, starting with the next ministerial, to show that the WTO is back and that the WTO is rejuvenated. So, I intend to be a proactively supportive DG.

What is your position on fair trade especially as it concerns the global north and south?

The multilateral trading system and the WTO are in place to serve all members and the hallmark of the WTO is fair, open, transparent, predictable and stable trade. So, the expectation is that trade should benefit all members and where it does not, and where the south has been left behind, we should deploy the instruments that are available to make sure we enable countries and members in the south to trade more and to derive more benefit from the multilateral trading system that they have. If am selected as DG, I would be very keen to make sure that instruments like aid for trade, which involves technical assistance, capacity building and working with other organisations such as the World Bank and the regional development banks, to be able to deliver to countries, what they need to improve investment within their borders, so that they can process their goods more, create more jobs and have more to trade. That is what I would be doing to make sure the south improves its position and benefit from the multilateral trading system.

You talked about wanting to achieve results by the ministerial, but given that the selection process could continue into November, what do you think is achievable by the next ministerial which holds by the middle of next year and there are a number of issues affecting the WTO, do you think it is best to address them one at a time or to have a big round of negotiations to try and tackle all these issues?

Achieving results at the next ministerial, I will have to encourage members to come to a quicker decision so that whoever becomes DG would have more time to work towards the next ministerial. But, even if it is by November, I do believe that some of the deliverables that one could have at the next ministerial are on their way and I am talking about negotiation on fisheries, where there are some outstanding issues. A lot has been done, but there are a couple of outstanding issues such as the ‘bad’ subsidies that encourage over fishing or over-capacity. There could be a consensus arrived at as to how to deal with this subsidy and I think it is achievable within the time of the ministerial. I also think support to small scale fisheries could be achievable. Where there is political will, I think this is doable. With respect to all the problems, there was a lot of discussions on trust in order to improve negotiations and I think one way to do that is to have it in sequence. So, I believe there is need for some sequencing at the beginning and it could be followed by more reforms coming through.

If you are the successful candidate and you are elected, when you speak to the President of the United States of America or the president elect, what would you say to him and about plan by the US to leave the organisation?

I would say to the President that the WTO delivered for all countries, including the United States, in the past. It is because of the multilateral rules-based trading system that we have had prosperity and the lifting of millions out of poverty and it has brought about shared prosperity and we could do it again. I would say to him, where the trading system has failed, we need to fix it so that it can be more inclusive and can benefit more people. And that truly, it’s not the time now to leave the WTO that matters. We need an institution that can promote a rules-based system. I would also say to him – remember the trade wars of the past, we don’t want that. We want peace, security and stability. That is why the WTO is needed, with its ability to arbitrate dispute among members. So, don’t leave now, let’s try to fix what needs fixing and if we didn’t have the WTO, we would have to invent it.

MSMEs account for an integral part of the global economy. Now, with COVID-19, there is no doubt that this sector has suffered a lot. If you become DG of the WTO, how will you ensure that this sector gets the required support?

I also said during my presentation that MSMEs are very important and that there are discussions ongoing about how to better integrate them into the multilateral trading system, which is very important. One crucial thing arising from COVID-19 and the impact it has had on economic growth and the predicted contraction of the world economy and economies around the world is that MSMEs have been badly affected. So, they need liquidity. So, we need to make sure that for them to survive, they should have adequate liquidity to keep their businesses going. My worry is that there have been countries globally who have been able to make this liquidity available to their MSMEs and there are others, like many developing countries and least developed countries who have not. And, one of my roles as African Union envoy, with my other five colleagues, has been to see how we can facilitate and encourage additional resources from outside and inside to these MSMEs, so that they can regain their position and be able to stand, not only to keep jobs, but to thrive in the future and create more jobs. So, I am very keen. I think it is a very important sector and the WTO would work hard to make sure such types of enterprises are supported.

How soon do you think a decision on the next DG should be arrived at?

Let me start by saying that it is up to the members to make a decision as to when they want the next WTO DG. But I would hope that it would be a rapid decision. Why? Not from personal reasons, but from the fact that the world is at a very uncertain juncture and we don’t know the trajectory of this pandemic. We don’t know what is going to happen and therefore an institution as important as the WTO should have leadership as quickly as possible, to be able to make sure that the WTO contributes what it can to the multilateral trading system and that in turn contributes to the recovery of the world economy.

What would the position mean for women in your country if you are chosen as DG?

If I get chosen, I hope it is a sign, not only to women and girls in my country, but to women and girls worldwide, that women can do it. The organisation has never had a woman or an African as DG. But my insistence is that choosing a DG for WTO should be on merit. The best person to lead the institution should be chosen. Now I will say to them, if that person happens to be a woman, let it be, if she happens to be an African, be it.

What is your strategy to address trade challenges from COVID-19 as well as make sure that vaccines when available gets to all countries?

I am indeed privileged to be the Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. And also to be working as an envoy to tools accelerators where there is an attempt by the international community to ensure that finding the tools to solving COVID-19 are there. And so the international community with the WTO, Gavi and other organisations that have come together to ensure that when the vaccine do become available that poorer countries will not be left standing in the queue. But there will be allocation criteria that will ensure that both the poor and rich countries get access to the vaccine at the same time. And if I become the DG, I will have a very strong collaboration with the tool accelerators like the WHO to make sure that there are no barriers, no restrictions on the availability of these vaccines. One is respecting the intellectual property rights of those who have manufactured the vaccines. The world should be able to come to the point where mechanisms are put in place to make those vaccines available. And the world trading system should be a facilitator of this and not an impediment. That will be mean combining the role of the DG of the WTO with the experience I have had from Gavi to ensure this because I think it is critical that everyone has access to life-saving vaccines.

Do you think the consensus rule at the WTO should be loosened or dropped to help overcome the current gridlock as most of the problems stem from deep disagreement among members?

I think part of the strength of the WTO is when the multilateral negotiations that involve all members around arriving at agreement by consensus because then the incentive to implement the agreement is there. So, I think on the consensus rule we need to ask ourselves how we can make it to work better. When there is no consensus we will look behind that and I think that there are issues on trust among members that are leading to these disagreements and divisions. This very question came up from the members during my interview. We need to rebuild trust. It is even in my vision: WTO with trust. How do you do that? It is not good enough to just talk about it. We have to have concrete confidence-building actions between members and find the winds that bring members together to rebuild that trust. If I am selected as the DG that is what I will do. So that we can begin to show that consensus decision making works. It has worked in the past. It can work again. We will restore it because that is the one thing that gets all members to do what has been agreed.

But, why is it difficult for Africa to back one candidate?

I think that that question is better answered by the African Union. But let me repeat again that I think it is an honour to have three qualified candidates from my continent. We should not necessarily see it as a bad thing. I have respect for my competitors from all continents for the job of the WTO and I believe that the WTO members should select on merit. Of course, I will love if that comes from Africa because Africa has never had a turn. I will love if it is a woman because a woman has never and of course I would love it if it were me, because I think that I am qualified to lead. I have all the attributes the WTO needs for leadership. It needs someone able to bring a bundle of qualities – political, ability to reach decision makers. International contacts I have. My managerial ability that I have from my long years in multilateral organisation like the World Bank, the ability to forge consensus, to negotiate a reform. I have reputation established as a strong reformer both at the World Bank and also at my country. I have even written a book about it. So, I bring along a bundle of qualities from public sector, private sector to really know how the businesses see the WTO and what needs to be done. What about the MSMEs? Just to find out what it means to be a small or medium enterprise, I started one myself in Nigeria just to see what the obstacles on the way are that need to be cleared out. So, I will do well. I am solution-oriented and pragmatic. So I bring about a bundle of skills and leadership acumen that are needed to lead the WTO and if the DG is to be selected from the African continent it should be me.

On e-commerce?

I happen to believe that e-commerce and digital economy are tremendous and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown it. People are now buying online, trading online. They are going to school online. So this is the wave of the future. But we have to pay attention to something very difficult from developing and least developed countries and this is the digital divide. They cannot participate in it unless we find a way to take care of this digital divide. They cannot be left out. Even people from our rural areas cannot be left out. I will be very keen, if I become the WTO DG, to see what bundle of resources working for multinationals institutions could we put together to help countries that do not have this infrastructure to get it so that they can work with e-commerce. That will advance negotiations. If you look at those not participating, a lot of them are from developing countries. Their thinking is what is in it for me? I do not even have the infrastructure. Why should I be negotiating on e-commerce? Why should I be agreeing to rules that I am not equipped or competent to discuss this time? So, we must bite the bullet and help them to get the infrastructure. And I think that we need to move and give them that assurance and then move the ecommerce negotiations along the line where all members can agree on the rules because this is the wave of the 21st century.

You are a financial expert, but some say you have never participated in a trade negotiation. Do you think not being a trade expert will be a challenge for you?

I think that that is a totally wrong notion because I have paid respect to my competitors because that is my nature. I do not criticise other people. I respect them. The competitors who are saying that I am not a trade expert are wrong. I am a development economist and you cannot do that without looking at trade, which is an essential part of development economics. So, I have been doing it. My whole career at the World Bank I was working on trade policy reform in middle and low income countries at the bank. As finance minister, the Customs service in my country reported to me. And that is all about trade facilitation. I helped my country on trade negotiation with the trade minister on the ECOWAS common external tariffs. So, I do not know how much trade you can have than that. Those who are saying that I do not have trade experience are mistaken. I think that the qualities I have are even better because I combine development economics with trade knowledge along with finance. And you need those combinations of skills to lead the WTO. I am confident that I have the skills that I needed. This is a familiar territory to me and not an alien one. I am a trade person.