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The Director-General of World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and the first African to occupy the position in her recent interview with EuroNews has emphasized on WTO’s effort in ensuring that the lives of people amid the Covid-19 crisis are improved.

At the State of the Union Conference, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission said that the EU is willing to discuss the proposal backed by the United States to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. At the same time, some countries have expressed concerns and they are perhaps not willing to do that. What is your take on this? Could this add extra time and even more negotiations, when time is really of the essence?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“What is happening right now is that members of the WTO, as you rightly noted, they are proponents of the intellectual property waiver. Over 100 developing countries have joined South Africa and India in asking for the waiver because they believe it is material to access for developing countries to solve the vaccine inequity issue.

But there are also proponents, as you said, on the other side who believe that the IP waiver may not be the critical issue for an increase in volumes. So my job is to make sure that I bring members together to actually sit down and negotiate a text that would lead to a pragmatic solution that assures access to developing countries to deal with the vaccine inequity whilst at the same time making sure we don’t disincentivize research and innovation.

So that is where we are. The recent pronouncements by the United States and so on, I am sure will give an impetus to the negotiations with people, members being willing to come around the table to negotiate text. That is the only way we will make progress.

But I would also like to add this: there are several factors needed to solve the problem of access, inequity for vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. The WTO can play a role in all of them and is playing a role. One is reducing export restrictions and prohibitions so that supply chains can work easily for both final products as well as raw materials and supplies. We also need trained personnel for manufacturing. Then we need to increase manufacturing capacity. 80% of the world’s exports of vaccines are concentrated in 10 counties in North America, South Asia and Europe.

We have seen the problems with that concentration now. So we also need to use the capacity in emerging markets and developing countries that is available now, that can be turned around in the next 6 to 9 months and put in new capacity. For instance Africa – a continent of 1.3 billion people – imports 99% of these vaccines, so I think something needs to be done to improve manufacturing on that side.

Then you have the problem of IP. With IP must come technology and know-how. Otherwise, you also won’t be able to manufacture the products. So it is a complex problem in three parts as I’ve explained it. I hope that members will come together to pull all those three parts together in order to be able to help increase volumes”.

The COVID-19 pandemic started over a year ago, what lessons have the WTO drawn from it?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“There are many lessons that emanate from the crisis. I think some of the biggest ones that everyone has drawn from is just how interconnected the world is, just how unprepared the world was for this crisis, whether it’s rich countries or poor ones. They need to make sure that our health systems globally, in each country, are strengthened to deal with the next crisis.

But I think another lesson is just the role of trade. Even though trade contracted last year by 5.3% in volume terms, 7% in value terms, trade played a very strong role in making sure that access to medical supplies and equipment was enhanced.

So even though overall trade was contracting, we saw trade in the value of medical supplies and equipment increased by 16%, for personal protective equipment 50%. So that shows you that the multilateral trading system did contribute to helping to solve the problem of moving medical supplies around.

So that’s one factor that I think is important and a good lesson for us to know that we need to strengthen and keep the multilateral trading system going.

I think another thing we’ve learnt is that supply chains have been quite resilient, much more than people would have thought. You know, there is all this talk of reshoring and onshoring because of the problems we saw. But you have seen that movement of agricultural products and food has been pretty resilient and steady, I already spoke of medical supplies.

All in all, we find that supply chains have largely worked, not perfectly, but they’ve worked. So that’s another solid lesson that we’ve learnt. Finally, I would say that the role of trade in making sure that we deal with problems of access to vaccines, vaccine inequity is also very important. That’s where supply chains matter a lot and issues of transfer of technology and access to issues of patents and intellectual property”.

Over the past year, we’ve heard calls to restore production, greater autonomy and self-sufficiency when it comes to the bigger picture of global trade. Should we rethink global trade and new multilateralism and if so, how?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“Well, first of all, I think that multilateralism has taken a lot of knocks and of course, we’ve seen an increase in protectionism, which also comes about from some of the deficiencies in globalisation.

As we know, globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but it’s also left some people behind. There are poorer people within rich countries who have been left behind and there are poorer countries that have not benefited from globalisation.

But that being said, I think that the new multilateralism, if you want to call it that, must be managed and supported in such a way that it can contribute to tackling the problems that globalization did not deal with and even strengthen the solidarity and cooperation that we need to solve problems of the global commons now.

But let me say something. People are talking about protectionism, de-globalization, globalization not working. I prefer to think of it as re-globalization, that the way globalization is working is being reorganized.

We’ve seen the first wave where countries like China and Eastern Europe were integrated into the system, resulting in major gains for the world’s economies and for those countries. Now we need a second wave in which continents like Africa, countries in Africa, other lower middle income and low-income countries in Asia and Latin America need to be integrated and will be reintegrated into the global system.

I think that will give another second boost to globalization that will help take care of inequalities that occurred from both technological developments as well as the first wave of globalization. So let’s think of it as re-globalization, in a strengthening of multilateralism. That’s what I like to think of as the new multilateralism”.

What actions are required to make sure we do not head towards de-globalisation, but rather re-globalisation with a different view?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“Well, first of all, we must make sure that the good things about the multilateral system, the trading system, are kept in place and strengthened: the level playing field, the fairness, the non-discrimination, all the principles and the stability of the system are kept going. That is absolutely necessary.

In addition to that, I think we need to see how to bring in, let’s say… You know, in most countries in the world, micro, medium and small enterprises are really the engines of economic growth. They create jobs, they move goods around. Yet you find that in many countries they do not participate in the multilateral trading system.

They are not on national, regional and global supply chains. So I think one key issue we need to think about in re-globalization is how do we bring small and medium enterprises into these value chains, into the supply chains that deliver goods all around the world?

Another area is women, women and trade. You’ll find that in most countries, 50% or more of these small and medium enterprises are owned by women. How do we involve them and bring them into all of these actions? How do we make new rules on trade that will be supportive of these sections of our global economy? I think those are the things we are looking at in the WTO, to see how re-globalization can bring in those who have been marginalized in the past”.

On the 26th of April, there was the #TradeDay21 and you talked with the European Commission Vice-president, Valdis Dombrovskis, about WTO reforms. Can you tell us about that? How can the European Union weigh in on the process of reforming the WTO?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“What the European Union does is critically important for the WTO and for the world trading system. We’ve exchanged a number of ideas that the EU is coming up with in regard to WTO reform. I find those ideas very helpful, very interesting. You know, there are issues of how do we complete some of the ongoing negotiations that the WTO has been involved in, for example, fisheries subsidies, negotiations to support the sustainability of our oceans.

This has been going on for 20 years. I know the EU and all the other members are very desirous to complete this multilateral round. So we’ve been talking about how to do that. We’ve been talking about issues regarding the dispute settlement system of the WTO, which has been paralyzed, and how do we reinvigorate and reform that.

We’ve been talking about creating or bringing the rules of the WTO up to 21st-century issues. I just mentioned issues of digital trade and e-commerce. How do we do that? The EU is very supportive in those areas. Then we come to trade and climate. How do we make WTO rules help with the greening and the decarbonisation of our economies and, you know, help us to build back better from this pandemic?”

All the members of the WTO have committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many of those SDGs relate to environmental protection. In the larger process of shaping up new multilateralism and re-globalisation, how do you make sure that trade policy lives up to climate and environmental challenges?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“Well, I think that trade can really contribute substantially to lowering carbon emissions globally, to the decarbonization of our world and to greening our world. I think there are many opportunities that we can explore. First of all, in 2016, WTO members were negotiating an agreement on environmental goods and services which would have helped to incentivize a move towards using cleaner and greener technologies and goods.

But those negotiations were stalled. So one of the things that we could do and we are trying to do is see how to revive those negotiations and see if we can complete them in a way that would be beneficial to members and globally to the environment.

Of course, there are issues of how to tackle carbon emissions within the ambit of trade and various mechanisms, including the carbon border adjustment mechanism that the EU is looking at, being looked at and debated.

We are also studying this issue at the WTO to make sure that whatever happens will be congruent with WTO rules. That’s what’s going on. But we need to look at various instruments that could be applied to help make trade more responsive to the environment. I think it’s an interesting and challenging area. We are looking forward to doing more work with the EU and with others on the issue of the environment”.

In the near future, let’s say in one to three years, what are some of the potential achievements or goals that you are most looking forward to?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“In the next one to three years? Actually, in one year, I am looking forward to a number of achievements for the WTO and for trade. I think first and foremost, we’ve got to change the WTO to an organisation that achieves results. The image that the WTO doesn’t get results, that it is dysfunctional, that has to change.

I see the great potential for changing that even within this year, by the time we have a 12th ministerial conference in December. This can be done by focusing on results. First, we have the great opportunity to complete the fisheries subsidies negotiations, which have been going on for 20 years.

I’ve said if this is about supporting the sustainability of our oceans and the livelihood of our fisherwomen and men, we must complete these negotiations. So that’s really a top priority as far as I’m concerned. It will give us a win. I think the second area that I’d like to see results in is trade and health issues.

We have the unique opportunity as the WTO to help resolve the problems we are facing right now with respect to the pandemic and I have already illustrated that trade, the multilateral trading system has been part of the solution.

I would like us to do more when we complete these negotiations on intellectual property and transfer of technology and know-how, we would have had an instrument that can contribute to solving the problems of access to medical supplies, equipment and vaccines.

So that’s a big contribution that we could finalize at our ministerial conference.

I think the third area is agriculture. This is an area of vital importance to all our members, both developing and developed. We have some areas on food security issues.

You know that the multilateral trading system has also assured that food supplies are stable and traded stably around the world. So food security is an important thing. How can we get to some agreements that would be beneficial to members in that area of agriculture? We, of course, have the issue of subsidies in both industrial subsidies and domestic, what we call domestic support, which are agricultural subsidies, which lead members to fear that there’s no longer a level playing field with regard to competition in trade between countries.

So we need to look at that. That’s an area where I would like to make some progress. Then let me just say, on the dispute settlement mechanism vital to rule-making at the WTO, I’d like to see some progress there. So there are a lot of opportunities in the next one to three years to rebrand the organization”.

Some issues have been dragging on for years. When it comes to the development and sorting out of these issues, should you be more socially orientated?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“Trade is a means to an end. The end is to develop and improve people’s lives. It’s all about people. So the WTO and its instruments should be used to improve the lives of people, whether it’s poorer people within rich countries, whether it’s poorer developing countries. The rules should be such that we can bring them into the world’s trading system and use that as a means to improve their lives.

All of these results that I’m talking about should lead to improvements in people’s lives, whether it’s in agriculture where, you know, many people in developing countries have their livelihood, whether it’s in fisheries. We’ve seen fisheries are important to both poor countries and large countries, whether it’s in trade and health and helping to solve the pandemic or even the environment. In every single area we have the opportunity to improve people’s lives”.

By Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher is a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.