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A new era at WTO: Challenges and opportunities ahead

A new era at WTO: Challenges and opportunities ahead
February 16
10:51 2021


A new era has dawned at the World Trade Organization, as Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes up the mantle of leadership as Director-General of the WTO, becoming the first woman and the first African to lead the global trade body. We applaud her ruggedness, deep-negotiation skills, and international experience in building virile Global economies.

As she steps in to expedite the realization of WTO aspirations, with the aim of promoting open trade for the benefit of all, negotiating and administering rules for international trade and resolving disputes that may, and do arise, among its 164 members, we are confident the WTO has the best match for this role.

This is historical moment, on multiple fronts, for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and the World Trade Center. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way we approach international trade and needs a desperate shift in business processes to focus to be ready for growth in a post-COVID-19 world. In recent times, the organization has struggled to prevent trade spats among member states, most notably the United States and China. Deep reforms are certainly needed to rebrand and reposition the organization. Some countries have unilaterally raised duties, and weaponized trade, using tariff as instruments of trade war, violating WTO rules with impunity.

Even though a relative newcomer to the trade world, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala can bring a fresh perspective to issues negotiators have thrashed over for years. Her selection also represents hope for a bigger African presence in the global economy and governance. She’ll stride a world stage still dominated mostly by men.


Putting the euphoria of this appointment on the shelve, there is a stream of challenges ahead of her. The trade challenges facing the WTO now are perhaps the biggest it has ever tackled. These include the functioning of the dispute settlement system, its failure to negotiate new multilateral trade agreements and a set of other disruptive issues raised mainly “privileged” member States. The WTO has negotiated just one new agreement covering its entire membership in its 26-year history. And that pact, the 2013 Trade Facilitation Agreement, was only possible because it gave developing countries a huge amount of flexibility in the commitments they implemented. Also, an issue is the fact that talks at the WTO are measured in years, rather than weeks or months, frustrating anyone who is hoping for quick results.

As she settles into her new role, we urge Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to nurture an egalitarian trade world. Poorer nations in the global south have long protested the advantages that WTO has given the developed world, and their relative lack of influence over decision-making compared with richer states.

Most importantly, among the most significant challenges before her is undoing the deep level of mistrust between rich economies and those of the developing world. The relevance of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), a trade agreement which is in force between 27 African Union member states, to world trade, cannot be over-emphasized. The free-trade area is the largest in the world in terms of the number of participating countries since the formation of the World Trade Organization. Now is the time for Africa to be embraced as integral, virile trade partner, not as subordinate, downstream ally. The pressure is now on her to deliver to Africa a better trade deal. The WTO has entrenched rules on how it assists poorer economies but that doesn’t include encouraging manufacturing, just trading in ready goods. This needs to change.


While climate is a clear focus for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, ramping up global efforts to combat Covid-19, ensuring fast distribution of vaccines, has also been her priority. However, the U.S.-Nigeria Trade Council implores her to concentrate on reforming the world trade terrain, allowing WHO to take care of healthcare issues, and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) , the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) , World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and allied organizations champion the cause of Climate change

Olowokere is the Executive Director/ CEO of the US-Nigeria Trade Council and President Emeritus of the Alliance of Nigerian Organizations in Georgia (ANOG). He writes from Atlanta, Georgia, US. He can be reached at [email protected]



Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.


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