By Obinna Chima
The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who assumed duty yesterday, has called on members of the organisation to “do things differently” to achieve reforms necessary to keep the global trade body relevant.
Addressing the WTO General Council immediately after taking office, Okonjo-Iweala, in her speech, stressed the need to swiftly take action to curb harmful fisheries subsidies and to help scale up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution.
She stated that high expectations for her tenure could only be met if members are willing to compromise and reach agreements.
The Nigeria’s two-term finance minister added that prospects for a successful Twelfth Ministerial Conference would be enhanced if members target a manageable number of deliverables for this year and set up longer work programmes to address issues that cannot be resolved within the timeframe.
She said: “As I take office as DG, I want to thank you, members, once more for the kind wishes and support many of you expressed two weeks ago when you made history by electing me. The large number of delegations (91 in all) that spoke is unprecedented and speaks to the desire of all for a fresh start.
“I remain honoured and humbled by the confidence members have placed in me. I will bring all my knowledge, passion, experience and persistence to the task at hand, reforming the organisation and achieving results.
“I am conscious that expectations are high and shall do my utmost to move us forward.
However, this is a membership-driven organisation so I cannot do it without you. I cannot do it without the cooperation of staff and management. What we are involved in is a tripartite partnership. Each partner has to play their part if we are to get results. High expectations of my leadership also mean that I have high expectations of you to help me deliver.”
She reiterated that it cannot be business as usual for the organisation, just as she stressed the need to change the WTO’s approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results.
She stated that council members have been working hard but much of their good work goes unnoticed.
“We have talented staff in the secretariat. But the world is no longer cognisant of this, does not recognise the efforts because we are not delivering results at the pace required by our fast-changing environment.
“Last week at the TNC, several ambassadors said that Your Excellencies talk past each other. You don’t talk to each other. This approach has to change. We have to be more accountable to the people we came here to serve — the ordinary women and men, our children who hope that our work here to support the MTS, will result in meaningful change in their lives, will improve their standard of living, and create decent jobs for those who seek work.
“Excellencies, coming from the outside I have noticed that the world is leaving the WTO behind. Leaders and decision-makers are impatient for change. Several trade ministers said to me that if things don’t change, they will no longer attend the ministerial because it is a waste of their time.
“I have noticed that more and more of the work and decision making that should be undertaken at the WTO is being done elsewhere because there is an increasing loss of confidence in the ability of the WTO to produce results. But there is hope. If we all accept that we can no longer do business as usual, that will help us create the parameters for success,” she added.
According to her, a few days ago, she listened over a six-hour time period to all 56 statements of delegations at the TNC and I analysed the priorities that were repeatedly being put forward.
“Delegations want the WTO to contribute more meaningfully and faster to a resolution of the COVID-19 pandemic both the public health crisis as well as economic recovery. Delegations want the fisheries subsidies negotiations concluded, they want reform of the dispute settlement system, including restoration of the appellate body.
“They want action on agriculture, on market access, domestic support, existing mandates such as PSH, SSM and cotton. They also want action on industrial subsidies to SOEs and SDT. Without neglecting the questions raised on the legal status of JSIs, delegations want forward movement on JSIs, especially e-commerce, services domestic regulation, investment facilitation and MSMEs.
“There is a desire to enhance dialogue and action on women in trade. Delegations recognise that the issue of trade and environment/climate change is key and want forward movement on this. Least developed countries emphasised issues of specific interest to least developed countries (LDCs) that would lead to enhancing their growth and development, including the need for special and differential treatment, services waiver, preferential rules of origin etc. and also a review of issues related to graduation,” she added.
Commenting on the COVID-19 vaccine, she said the WTO would ensure that the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries yet to vaccinate a single person were considered, to stem deaths in poor countries.