Candidates from Africa are divided over whether the role needs a political big hitter or an expert insider.
ADDIS ABABA — It is increasingly likely that it will fall to a new boss from Africa to revive the World Trade Organization just as it has never seemed so powerless.
The selection of a successor to Brazil’s Roberto Azevêdo is now turning toward the elimination stage, and there are three Africans among the eight candidates. POLITICO has spoken to each of them, and asked them why they are better suited than their rivals to rescue an organization that has ground to a standstill, under pressure from China’s state-led economic model and facing an onslaught from U.S. President Donald Trump.
The next WTO chief will have their work cut out. Washington has effectively stopped the WTO by blocking the appointment of judges to the world’s top tribunal for trade disputes, arguing that the organization is too soft on China. The WTO’s supporters argue the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will demand a strong WTO that can break down global trade barriers.
There is a growing sense among trade experts that it is Africa’s time. China would never support a U.S. candidate, and vice-versa. Latin America has just occupied the role, and the EU has no nominee.
Starting on Monday, ambassadors from all 164 members of the WTO will provide four names to Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, the current chairman of the WTO’s General Council. On September 21, the current list of eight candidates will be whittled down to five before another popularity contest will reduce the list further.
This is what Africa’s trio have to say:
The diplomat, and insider
Amina Mohamed is a 58-year old cabinet minister in Kenya, who has chaired the three most important bodies of the WTO: the Trade Policy Review Body, the Dispute Settlement Body and the General Council.
She has little time for suggestions that her prominent rival from Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former No. 2 at the World Bank and political heavyweight, has an advantage by being an outsider who can shake up things with a fresh approach.
“That’s an argument that I have tried to dissociate myself from. It’s a weak argument,” she said.
Mohamed has been Kenya’s minister for international trade and credits herself with having “worked the system” repeatedly in Geneva.
“I understand how negotiations are done. I’m a trade negotiator. I think that is really mainly what distinguishes me,” she said. “I’m still a serving cabinet minister, which the other two are not.”
Mohamed has sought Washington’s backing and has expressed sympathy with the American view that the WTO has failed to foster an even playing field for its members.
She also stressed the importance of seeing off disputes before they flare up. “For instance … you have a committee on specific trade concerns,” she said. “We need to enhance that so we are able to resolve some of the disputes before they occur.”
Mohamed’s other priorities include reaching a deal on fisheries’ subsidies, progressing from “sharing information to fostering cooperation” in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and reviving age-old talks on agriculture subsidies, something developing countries are keen to see.
“Having been a minister of trade, I understand how ministers of trade think, what they’re sensitive to and how they manage the economic and trade interests of their countries,” she said. “I actually feel that my whole career prepared me for the job that I am seeking now.”
The technocrat broker
Hamid Mamdouh, an Egyptian old-timer at the WTO — he was part of his country’s delegation negotiating the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade back in 1985 — feels he’s at risk of being overlooked.
“We cannot abbreviate their profiles into just being African, and then look at questions of gender or whether he or she was a minister,” he said, urging delegations to look at the job rather than the rhetoric coming from his competitors.
“The job of the director general is not really at all the job of an executive,” he explained. “It is the job of an honest broker.”
Mamdouh credits himself with having both the legal nous and trust of the global trade community for having helped draft large portions of the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services. He said he has helped pioneer some of the WTO’s “legal concepts to liberalize trade” and would enter the director general’s office with the confidence of the global trade community.
After stepping down from his position as director of the WTO’s Trade in Services and Investment Division in 2017, Mamdouh said ambassadors, negotiators and trade officials from all over the world came to see him for advice.
To reform the WTO, he argued that members must first be convinced it’s in their own “enlightened self-interest” to change their behavior. He also said Geneva must bear some of the responsibility for its current state of irrelevance.
Problems balancing the WTO’s three main functions — dispute settlement, negotiation and transparency over trade flows — has led to a situation where “we don’t discuss anything anymore,” he explained.
“This is not going to be fixed by someone who says, ‘I’m a person with high political stature, I’m going to knock heads together and use my political clout to resolve problems,’” he said in an apparent dig at his two challengers from Africa. “I laugh when I hear that.”
In his first year in office, Mamdouh said he would like to drive a “visionary reform discussion,” finalize a deal on fisheries’ subsidies and make progress on joint initiatives such as a deal on e-commerce, investment facilitation rules and services.
He also said he would not hold back from kick-starting talks on the thorny issue of industrial subsidies, a matter both Europe and the U.S. have been keen to tackle due to the state support China grants its multinationals.
The political big hitter, and outsider
Okonjo-Iweala, head of a global vaccine alliance for developing countries, sees herself as the only candidate who can make the WTO relevant again by ensuring it plays a pivotal role in the global recovery from COVID-19.
As a board member of Twitter, a World Health Organization special envoy to provide equitable access to COVID supplies and a former finance minister in her home country Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala stressed her managerial experience in making the WTO a force to be reckoned with again.
“I am the only candidate working at the intersection of public health and trade at the moment. Looking at the WTO rules on the trading of medical supplies, vaccines and equipment can be part of the solution for the world,” she said. “Poor countries should not have to stand in line waiting until rich countries have had their share.”
She said her combination of politics, economics, trade, COVID knowledge and management gave her a unique “bundle” of attributes needed to revitalize the WTO.
Her entry into the race in June instantly made headlines. Since then she has been speaking to members of the WTO almost non-stop in a bid to convince delegations that an outsider with a big name is what’s needed to truly reform the institution.
“I don’t think there needs to be any fear factor. I’m skilled in trying to do reforms. Nobody has to be afraid. When you’re doing it [reforms] you must involve the people,” she said in response to any concerns among delegations in Geneva about hiring a total outsider.
Okonjo-Iweala said she can bring about deep and meaningful reform to the WTO by reviving the dispute settlement system, not a given considering the huge task at hand.
“What I’m presenting is a package whereby I’ve been known to implement reforms, not only within the context of a multilateral organization … but within my own country, which is one of the largest in the world — a very complex country with 374 ethnic groups and as many languages,” she said.
Okonjo-Iweala said that a recent article on WTO reform by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, coupled with the EU’s so-called multi-party interim appeal arrangement, which is replacing the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism, and a work program proposed by the chair of the WTO’s General Council all provide a “high basis” to drive reforms inside the WTO.
Okonjo-Iweala’s other priorities include concluding the agreement on fisheries’ subsidies, updating WTO rules on the accessibility and affordability of medicines, boosting financial instruments to promote trade and making sure WTO members notify each other when they change trade rules.
“I think the WTO is at a unique juncture where really some careful decisions need to be made if the organization is to remain relevant. I think that is very clear,” she said.
Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/african-trio-set-out-battlelines-for-decisive-phase-of-wto-leadership-fight/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication