With her emergence on Monday as the first African and first female to be the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, unveiled her agenda, which includes working with other members of the organisation in reforming and rebranding the global trade body.
Okonjo-Iweala, in her acceptance speech after the WTO’s General Council agreed by consensus to select her as the organisation’s seventh director-general, also highlighted the need for procedural reforms so that the WTO would better serve its members.
Her coronation as the WTO DG, after a nerve-wracking delay caused by former President Donald Trump’s objection to her candidacy threw Nigeria and other countries into a rapture.
She is to assume office on March 1, 2021, and her term, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.
According to her, the rulebook of the Geneva-based organisation is outdated and its rules lag behind those of some regional and bilateral trade agreements, which are incorporating many innovations.
Okonjo-Iweala stated that the WTO’s rulebook must be updated to take into account 21st century realities such as e-commerce and the digital economy.
She said: “It has been a long and tough road, full of uncertainty, but now it is the dawn of a new day and the real work can begin.
“Some WTO rules and procedures also need to be revisited, including the procedure for appointing director-general.”
According to her, the WTO secretariat should be strengthened, to enable it to provide cutting-edge services to members.
She explained: “An important change would be to move away from the current silo way of working, to a more team-based and task-based approach.
“The secretariat has to be fit-for-purpose to take account of the changing dynamics of the global economy and priorities of members.
“The challenges facing the WTO are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable. There is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel if we work together in a transparent manner that builds trust, build bridges and diffuses political tension and encourages convergence.”
She said the pandemic and its economic fallouts have highlighted the interdependence of countries, the importance of multilateralism and the need to strengthen collaboration in order to achieve fair and balanced agreements that provides opportunities for all WTO members, particularly the least developed countries.
“I am passionate about these goals and I look forward to working closely with all of you in the coming months and years, to help build the WTO that we all want,” she added.
Okonjo-Iweala said a key priority for her would be to work with members to quickly address the economic and health consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO director-general.
“A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.
“Our organisation faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today,” former Nigeria’s finance minister said.
She said the pandemic had heightened the burdens and accelerated the role of e-commerce, expected to grow significantly in the coming years.
Okonjo-Iweala said the WTO would work to address the nexus between trade and climate change, adding that it will be important for members to broaden negotiations on environment, goods and services.
“This would help promote trust and encourage members to explore further ways in which trade can contribute positively to an improved climate,” she added.
Okonjo-Iweala also noted that improving access to markets for least-developed countries was also paramount, stressing the need to level the playing field so as to provide opportunities for small-scale farmers.
“We must also strengthen disciplines on industrial subsidies. In that regard, it would be important to ensure that subsidies granted by members to their state-owned enterprises in certain situations do not distort competition,” she stated.
Commenting on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment, the WTO General Council Chair, David Walker of New Zealand, who, together with co-facilitators Ambassador Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Ambassador Harald Aspelund (Iceland) that led the nine-month DG selection process, was quoted to have said: “This is a very significant moment for the WTO. On behalf of the General Council, I extend our warmest congratulations to Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on her appointment as the WTO’s next director-general and formally welcome her to this General Council meeting.
“Dr Ngozi, on behalf of all members, I wish to sincerely thank you for your graciousness in these exceptional months, and for your patience.
“We look forward to collaborating closely with you, Dr Ngozi, and I am certain that all members will work with you constructively during your tenure as director-general to shape the future of this organisation.”