COVID-19: On Okonjo-Iweala, Others for WTO Top Job

By Mohammad Dahiru Lawal

The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading with alarming speed, infecting millions and bringing economic activity to a near-standstill across the world. On the supply side, widespread shutdowns of businesses to fight the epidemic caused a decline in aggregate supply. The sharp drop in demand led to negative growth for business revenue and gross profits as well as weak market confidence.

Predictions have emerged that COVID-19 is not the last pandemic the world would be facing anytime soon. While we do not pray to witness anything more in terms of the disruption of human activities and the kind of economic hardship COVID-19 has put the world through, in the case of a future eventuality, the international communities require world bodies that led by focused and pragmatic leaders that are abreast with the risk factors and solutions to the pandemic.

The World Trade Organisations (WTO) which is in the process of electing a new Director-General, is one of the multilateral bodies that could play positive roles in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gunning for the job that requires leading the world through a post-pandemic economy which involves economic recovery, I expected candidates vying for the top job at WTO would highlight their visions on halting the spread of the virus that imposed tight restrictions on movement and trade.

The biographies of the candidates gunning for the top job that involves dealing with the rules of trade between nations are quite intimidating with ample qualifications and decades of experience and international exposures. One cannot but marvel at the array of gladiators and bright minds the world is able to parade for a job that is not only very tasking but comes with a lot of global expectations as the world coasts towards a post-pandemic era.

The candidates include Dr Jesús Seade Kuri, a Mexican with unique experience in global trade and negotiation policies; Mr Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, an Egyptian who has played key roles in trade policy and diplomacy for 35years; Mr Tudor Ulianovschi, a Moldovan who has served as Minister of Foreign Affairs with a distinguished career in diplomatic service for over 15years and Ms Yoo Myung-hee, a Korean with a 25years career in trade. Other include Ms Amina C. Mohamed, a Kenyan who was Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister; Mr Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, an Arabian who is the current Minister of advising the royal court on international and local economic strategic matters Dr Liam Fox, a British member of the UK parliament and a Privy Counsellor who has served as International Trade Secretary under Prime Minister Theresa May, from 2016 to2019 and of course a Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian who is a global finance expert, and international development professional with over 30 years of experience working in almost all the continents.

In their various brief and press conferences streamed live between 16th to 17th July, 2020 and made available on demand on the WTO official website, each candidate displayed sufficient capability and readiness to take on the task with some recognising and espousing the role of WTO in COVID-19 response.

The candidates had the opportunity to interact with the delegates and present their visions, stating why they are the best person for the job. Each of the candidates explained how they hope to fix WTO’s declining negotiating function, its paralyzed dispute settlement system, and the various other ailments that have rendered the world’s foremost arbiter of trade ineffective.

After watching their press conferences, I am however impressed with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iwaela’s sufficient grasp of the growth of trade since the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT, in 1948 and went further in diagnosing the current issues and what they portend for the WTO especially in relation to COVID-19 crisis. She highlights the need for urgent action to cushion the pandemic’s health and economic consequences, protect vulnerable populations, and set the stage for a lasting recovery.

She noted that “trade tensions among the membership have flared up, threatening the fundamental architecture of the MTS. With all these, the WTO, unfortunately, is now perceived by some as an inefficient organization that has failed to keep abreast of developments in the global economy. These challenges are unprecedented and have been exacerbated by the COVID crisis.”

NOI’s experience in related response, during the press briefing, makes her tower startlingly. With her helming the WTO, she has all it takes to look us all in the eyes and say, “the world will be fine,” in a future pandemic eventuality.

Glancing through the bios of all contenders, none seems to have a COVID-19 experience the like of which Ngozi can boldly brandish, therefore, asides her highly competitive background and global experience in the trade and economic affairs which alone is a qualifier in itself, her candidacy is a no brainer in the arena of logical discernment.

I mean, here is a candidate who as Chair of Gavi, have the privilege of being in the frontlines of those working on accelerating tools to fight COVID-19 and has gone as far as mulling policy responses that will re-invigorate the WTO. She is a World Health Organisation (WHO) Special Envoy for Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and was recently appointed as an African Union (AU) Special Envoy to mobilise international financial support for the fight against COVID-19.

Competence has no alignment with pettiness and or personal differences, perhaps that was why an acclaimed global award-winning PR Practitioner, Yushau Shuaib, minced no word in endorsing her candidacy above all others.

In his widely publicised article titled “WTO: Africa’s Chance and the Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Candidacy” Shuaib noted that that if what the WTO is looking for is ‘a candidate with vast experience in international relations, encompassing trade and/or political experience, a firm commitment to the work and objectives of the organisation, proven leadership and managerial ability; and demonstrated communications skills,’ then Okonjo-Iweala is not only the strongest African contender but the right peg for the job.

Her qualifications and experience aside, throughout the process since her nomination for the DG job on 9th of June 2020 as Nigeria’s candidate, NOI has shown enough comportment, grasp, temperament and a good understanding of not only the issues but how to tackle them, an outing that has reinforced her option as the best and most qualified for the job.

Even if all this is not proof enough, the fact that the outgoing Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, while addressing heads of WTO delegations for the last time as Chair of the Trade Negotiations Committee on 20th July, recognized that decisions made at the WTO will matter for economic recovery from COVID-19 crisis, noting that “keeping markets broadly open” is what will help build “a post-COVID economic recovery that is strong, sustainable and inclusive,” means the DG job fits only one head – NOI.

So now, the distinction between who gets the job and who doesn’t shouldn’t be an issue as far as logical discernment goes, if a post-COVID-19 life is any priority for global trade, it is clear who the crown fits, however, would she be so honoured?

Mohammed Dahiru Lawal, a Development Journalist writes from Kano.
M.D Lawal
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