New WTO-DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala : „We can’t do business as usual“

Die designierte WTO-Chefin Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Bild: AFP

The new Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala talks about her will to reform, the role of the WTO in the Corona crisis – and things that scare her.

          3 Min.

          Dr. Ngozi, you have said that as Director General of the WTO, your first focus will be on Covid-19. Can the WTO play a role in the fair distribution of vaccines? 

          Johannes Ritter

          Korrespondent für Politik und Wirtschaft in der Schweiz.

          Yes, I think so. The WTO can help provide poor countries with equitable, rapid and affordable access to Covid-19 vaccines. To do this, export restrictions and bans must be lifted. There are currently still 100 countries where export controls on medical goods are in place, some of which include vaccines. We need more transparency here. We need to strengthen the WTO's monitoring role. 

          South Africa and India have proposed within the WTO to suspend patent protection for Covid 19 vaccines. What do you think about this? 

          The developed countries oppose this request because it would violate intellectual property rights. So there is a disagreement here with the developing countries. But I see a way in which WTO members could come together: They should take their cue from the private sector; it has been a step ahead .The British pharmaceutical company Astra-Zeneca has already licensed several manufacturers in developing countries to produce the Covid 19 vaccine. The largest of these is the Serum Institute of India, which will produce up to one billion doses. Such licensing allows them the ramping up of vaccine production around the globe.  

          The stimulus programs around the world are leading to a flurry of subsidies that could also have a protectionist effect. Do you see that risk? 

          Yes, definitely. I was in a meeting the other day with the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and she said the IMF estimates that the rich countries have launched stimulus programs equivalent to 21 percent of gross domestic product. In emerging markets, that figure is 6 percent, and in poorer countries, it's 3 percent. So the inequality in terms of fiscal stimulus is huge. Therefore, it’s important to avoid the risk that some of the economic stimulus become subsidies that hinder competition.  

          China is promoting its own economy with a web of subsidies, distorting competition. Should WTO rules be expanded to curb such things in the future? 

          As I said in my speech at the General Council, subsidies that undermine competition and create an unlevel playing field in any sector have to be looked at by the WTO because the whole idea is that the multilateral trading system should provide a fair, transparent and level playing field. 

          Donald Trump has blocked the WTO dispute settlement system. Do you expect Joe Biden to now quickly unblock it? 

          From what I understand, the United States across different administrations has shared the same concerns about the Appellate Body. The blockade will not be resolved quickly and easily, but I believe there is a greater will under the Biden Administration to resolve the problems and work constructively with other WTO members to that end. 

          What concessions do the other WTO members have to make to the Americans? 

          There needs to be compromise. There are issues around the arbitration panel that quite a few other WTO members also find problematic, such as the long duration of the appeals processes. These are supposed to be completed in 90 days, but sometimes they take two or three years.  

          The WTO rulebook is outdated. For example, there are still no rules for e-commerce. An absurdity, isn't it? 

          The rulebook is outdated, yes. We need to revitalize negotiations within the WTO and conclude new multilateral agreements. We've been talking about the fisheries subsidies for 20 years. We need to get that wrapped up now. In these fast-moving times, we can no longer afford "business as usual" and the exchange of the same arguments over and over again. For e-commerce there is a plurilateral agreement that can be built on. It is important to move forward quickly here. Trade through digital platforms opens the way to entrepreneurship for many people, including more and more women. 

          In the WTO, the 164 members decide, and each country has a veto. Still, expectations are very high for you and your power to reform. Does that scare you? 

          Yes, absolutely, it scares me. I don't mind admitting that (laughs). How can you push through reforms in an organization that is based on consensus? That's a challenge!  

          And how are you tackling this? 

          I will start with the reforms that all WTO members agree are necessary. For example, everyone agrees that the dispute settlement system needs to be reformed. We can build on that and then move forward. 

          You are the first woman and the first African to head the WTO. Do you perhaps also feel that as a burden? 

          First of all, I feel it is a privilege and a great honor. Burden? No, "responsibility" is a better word. I feel a responsibility to deliver results. If I deliver, it will be natural for other women to take on such a top post. It would no longer be a historical event. I myself have gone through this process several times. In my home country of Nigeria, I was the first woman to become finance minister. Since then, three other women have made it to this post. I am very proud of that. Today, it is no longer an issue whether a woman or a man becomes finance minister. 

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