Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: WTO members must intensify co-operation

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The writer is director-general of the World Trade Organization

On Monday I became the first woman and the first African to lead the World Trade Organization. Now we must roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The WTO already faced acute challenges, and they have been amplified by Covid-19. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global economy, affecting supply chains and disrupting transport and travel. The crisis has upended trade and economic activities, leading to job losses and reduced incomes around the world. It has erased years of economic gains made by developing countries and even decades of growth in some low income and least-developed countries.

There is hope on the horizon. The WTO expects world merchandise trade to rebound strongly this year. The IMF forecasts an 8 per cent growth in global trade volumes in 2021 and a 6 per cent growth in 2022. It estimates global gross domestic product to rebound from falling 4.4 per cent in 2020 to growing 5.5 per cent in 2021.

However, for the global economy to return to sustained growth, we must intensify co-operation to ensure equitable and affordable access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. The WTO can and must play a more forceful role in encouraging members to minimise or remove export restrictions and prohibitions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment.

WTO members have a further responsibility to reject vaccine nationalism and protectionism while co-operating on promising new treatments and vaccines. We must find a “third way” on intellectual property that preserves the multilateral rules that encourage research and innovation while promoting licensing agreements to help scale-up manufacturing of medical products. Some pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and the Serum Institute of India are already doing this.

More broadly, WTO members agree that the organisation needs reforms. But a lack of trust means they do not agree on what changes are needed or their sequencing. If we are to restore the WTO’s credibility, we must set aside our differences and agree on reforms when trade ministers meet later this year.

We must contribute to ocean sustainability by agreeing to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies which lead to too many vessels chasing too few fish. A robust deal will signal that the WTO is back and that it can conclude a multilateral agreement vital for future generations. The WTO cannot afford to stumble over this; the negotiations have been going on for 20 years. This is far too long. Absent an agreement, there will be no fish left over which to argue.

The dispute settlement system has been central to the security and predictability of multilateral trade. But it needs reform and ministers need to agree this year on the nature of these reforms and how to make them.

The WTO rule book must be updated to take account of 21st-century realities such as the digital economy. The pandemic has accelerated the use of ecommerce, enabling women and small and medium-sized enterprises to participate in international trade. But we must bridge the digital divide that makes some developing countries reluctant to join the ecommerce negotiations.

Negotiations among some WTO members on facilitating investment and removing regulatory red tape in services trade have continued fairly intensively despite the pandemic. Participants need to broaden the support for these initiatives and attract interest from developing countries with the aim of concluding talks by the end of the year.

More can be done to ensure the WTO addresses the nexus between trade and climate change. Members should reactivate and broaden the negotiations on environmental goods and services. But climate-related restrictions cannot become disguised restrictions on trade, and we must assist developing countries as they transition to the use of more environmentally friendly technologies.

The WTO’s work in new or innovative areas does not mean that we have forgotten traditional topics such as agriculture. Improving market access for export products and dealing with trade-distorting farm subsidies remain of paramount importance to developing and least-developed countries. One area ripe for early agreement involves the removal of export restrictions on farm products purchased for humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme. Ensuring that government support for state-owned industrial enterprises does not distort competition is also a top priority for many WTO members.

The WTO faces numerous tricky challenges, but they are not insurmountable. There is hope if we work together in a manner that builds trust and builds bridges.

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