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Okonjo-Iweala begins the daunting task of leading the WTO with eyes focused on seven key issues

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Okonjo-Iweala received on her first day in office as WTO DG-Photo Credit| WTO

By Charles Ike-Okoh

MON 01 MARCH, 2021-theGBJournal- Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the great hope for global trade rebirth after a year devastated by coronavirus pandemic. She begins her tenure today after WTO members made history 15 February when the General Council agreed by consensus to select her as the organization’s seventh Director-General.

She becomes the first woman and the first African to lead the world trade body.

‘’Being the first woman and the first African means that one really has to perform. If I want to really make Africa and women proud, I have to produce results, and that is where my mind is at now’’ she said during her first press conference following her appointment.

At the press conference she outlined key issues she intends to address, starting with the double pandemic shocks which trust the issue of global health and economy to forefront.

‘’First and foremost we need to focus on the issue of COVID-19 and what can the WTO do to contribute to solutions,’’ she said. ‘’Trade is very important and it is very important if we are also to come out of this pandemic, both in terms of helping make sure there is freer flow of medical goods and supplies, but also for the economic revival. Without trade, it cannot happen.’’

According her, ‘’we cannot be complacent. For the global economy to return to sustained growth, the global community will need to get a tight grip on the pandemic by intensifying cooperation to make equitable and affordable access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics a key plank of the recovery. With new COVID variants spreading rapidly all over, we must have a sense of urgency to getting control of the pandemic. The WTO can and must play a more forceful role in exercising its monitoring function and encouraging Members to minimise or remove export restrictions and prohibitions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment. The International Trade Centre recently reported that up to 100 countries still maintain export restrictions and prohibitions.’’

2-Concluding a deal on fisheries subsidies is also on the table. She says the fisheries subsidies negotiation is key and it speaks to both the sustainability of the oceans and helps fulfil one of the SDGs.

‘’I am acutely aware that the negotiations on fishery subsidies are difficult, but Members should exercise the necessary flexibility for progress to be made on this important issue’’

According to the new DG, a robust agreement would be a win-win for trade and sustainability. It will signal to the world that the WTO is back, that it is capable of concluding a multilateral agreement vital for current and future generations.

‘’Members will need to overcome their differences and agree on prohibiting subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and that facilitate overfishing and overcapacity.’’

She said it is now time to identify appropriate landing zones, taking into account the interest of all Members, and the need to fully fulfill SDG 14.6.

‘’The WTO cannot afford to stumble over this. The stakes are too high, the negotiations have been going on for far too long, and every effort must be made to conclude as soon as possible.’’

3-Reforming dispute settlement at the WTO, which has been a central element in guaranteeing security and predictability of the multilateral trading system: She says ‘’every member agrees that the dispute settlement system needs reform. Her plan is to first try to work with members to tease out what their issues are and ‘’once they agree that these are the set of reforms, we put together a work programme to implement those reforms.’’

4-Making trade more inclusive: We must be mindful that whatever we do will benefit all members, not just big members or middle-sized ones, but also small island economies. For her trade is about people. How do we bring those who have been excluded or marginalised, like women, owners of micro, medium and small enterprises into the mainstream?

5-Modernizing trade rules for a digital economy: There is a need to modernize the rules of the WTO and bring them up to 21st century issues. We have to look at the digital economy, which has become so prominent during this pandemic. E-commrce is key and is going to grow in leaps and bounds as we move on.

6-Reviving talks on traditional trade topics: She says traditional trade issues should not be forgotten-issues of industrial subsidies, agricultural subsidies, special and differential treatment. ‘’We need to look into them.’’

7-Rebuilding trust to advance reforms: We need to look at our procedures, some parts of the institution. So much needs to be done, that is why I talk about wide-ranging reforms. ‘’We also have the issue of lack of trust among members which has built up over time, and we need to work through that if we are to achieve the reforms that the WTO needs to achieve relevance in this modern age.’’

‘’By working together, we can build trust, and we can achieve a stronger, more relevant, and inclusive trading system. I am passionate about these goals. I am keen to support you to carry out the necessary reforms,’’ she said.

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