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Okonjo-Iweala's Mission Impossible as history-making WTO Director-General

Okonjo-Iweala's great task is to reform an organisation that's in desperate need of an upgrade.

WTO Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, arrives at the WTO at a time when it needs to deliver on decisive and significant actions [WTO]

The historic double could have somewhat been thwarted if Donald Trump won re-election as United States President as his administration last year delayed what initially appeared a smooth ride for Nigeria's former Minister of Finance.

What was initially supposed to be a six-month selection process took an additional three months of uncertainty to complete because Trump backed Okonjo-Iweala's opponent, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, even though it was clear at the time that she was the clear favourite to win a consensus.

It is thanks to Trump's electoral loss, and the eventual public backing of the Joe Biden administration that Nigeria's premium export now sits as the director of the world's largest international economic organisation.

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As the WTO's seventh Director-General, Okonjo-Iweala's immediate concern is addressing the economic and health consequences of the coronavirus disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the strongest economies of the world and further battered the economies of developing nations.

Rebuilding those economies is to be juggled with the global health implications of a lopsided vaccination campaign against a disease that has infected over 115 million people and killed over 2.5 million across the world.

Okonjo-Iweala herself has highlighted the dangers of vaccine nationalism and the WTO is best placed to ensure that poor countries are not left behind in the distribution of vaccine to defeat what is truly a global problem.

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The Harvard and MIT graduate has already made repeated appeals to member states to work together to lift export restrictions on supplies and vaccines to get them distributed to countries in need.

Another pressing matter in her sights is finalising the fisheries subsidies negotiations, an issue that WTO member states have failed to reach an agreement on after 20 years of deliberations.

She appealed during a special session of the WTO General Council last month for members to exercise the necessary flexibility to finally draw the curtain on the issue with a win-win for trade and sustainability.

The WTO DG wants members to agree on prohibiting subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and that facilitate overfishing and overcapacity.

"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," she said.

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With 164 member states representing over 96% of global trade and global GDP, the WTO's platform is unparalleled in its significant standing.

Yet, despite its noted contribution to the global reduction in trade barriers, a common longstanding criticism of the WTO is that trade agreements facilitated by the organisation are not necessarily closing the gap between rich and poor countries.

The overarching powers of the biggest member states like the United States and China to almost single-handedly block popular decisions, or skirt around prominent WTO trade rules have troubled the organisation for years.

The WTO has also been heavily criticised for failing to update obsolete rules, especially making it incredibly tricky for its dispute settlement mechanism to work in a manner that's not always subjected to valid objection.

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For example, certain developed nations have been able to exploit a loophole that allows them be classed as developing nation as a scheme to enjoy favourable trade rules they shouldn't.

Many of these problems have snowballed over the past few years and caused a growing lack of faith in the WTO's mandate as a key pillar of global economic governance.

Okonjo-Iweala is not oblivious to the big challenge that the WTO presents for her stellar reputation as a dealmaker, and had hinged her campaign on bringing wide-ranging reform to the organisation.

She wants the WTO to once again be seen as an instrument for inclusive economic growth, and sustainable development.

To make this happen, she insists the WTO must play a more forceful role in exercising its monitoring function, and encouraging members to minimise or remove trade barriers.

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She especially hopes to reform the dispute settlement system which was hit with a major crisis in 2019 when its revered Appellate Body shut down because the Trump administration blocked the appointment of new judges to hear trade disputes.

Crucially, Okonjo-Iweala recognises that the WTO's rule book is outdated, and must be updated to reflect 21st century realities.

The 66-year-old is confident the organisation's problems will go away if members work together in a transparent manner that builds trust, builds bridges, defuses political tensions, and encourages convergence.

One of the highlights of the selection process, especially manifested in America's initial objection, was the concern about Okonjo-Iweala's suitability to head the WTO because of her supposed inexperience with global trade.

But with her years on the international economic scene, which includes a historic run for the top job at the World Bank, very few should bet against her competence to take the WTO to new heights.

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In her own words, "The challenges facing the WTO are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable."

She's ready to take on the world. Good luck to her.

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