Africa on the rise with WTO appointment

She will be taking the helm as global trade and the WTO face its most tumultuous time since its creation.

In Summary

•Following the end of a blockade to consensus on the WTO leadership election, Nigerian’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela has emerged as the next chief to the world top trade lobby, making history twice.

•The former Nigerian Finance Minister on two separate occasions and a past Managing Director of the World Bank Group has become the first African and first woman ever to head the WTO.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses outside a Nigerian diplomatic residence in Chambesy, near Geneva, Switzerland, September 29, 2020.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses outside a Nigerian diplomatic residence in Chambesy, near Geneva, Switzerland, September 29, 2020.
Image: REUTERS

From March this year, Africa will be taking its place at the helm of two crucial global setups in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

This following twin appointments made mid-way through February that now position the continent to take its place at the global stage.

Following the end of a blockade to consensus on the WTO leadership election, Nigerian’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela has emerged as the next chief to the world top trade lobby, making history twice.

The former Nigerian Finance Minister on two separate occasions and a past Managing Director of the World Bank Group has become the first African and first woman ever to head the WTO.

Ngozi is an undisputed finance and global trade expert which makes her a top fit for the global trade lobby.

Her credentials as a Nigerian Finance and Planning Minister saw the country become Africa’s largest economy by size at the start of the 21st Century with the West African power house getting to the apex with little exposures in matters debt vulnerabilities.

Renaissance

While Ngozi might be the perfect fit for the job, she will be taking the helm as global trade and the WTO face its most tumultuous time since its creation.

The 164-member and 25 observer governments coalition has been characterized by turmoil in recent years with international trade seemingly falling apart.

Besides wobbles in global trade harmony, Ngozi’s election to the WTO has upset the old guard which largely comprised of an exclusive club of the world richest countries who had been imposing rules and their power on poorer countries.

In the aftermath of her election for instance, a number of Switzerland based newspapers were put on blast for carrying headlines that may have bore the connotation of gender based and certain biases.

The headlines which faced some misunderstandings , incidentally emerged from the very country that hosts the WTO headquarters based in Geneva.

The recent rise of populism and trade protectionism across the globe have threatened to cow the role and effectiveness of the WTO.

The dangers of protectionism were well mirrored under a Donald Trump administration of the United States.

For instance, President Trump may have reviewed an existing trade agreement between the US and its North American neighbours in Canada and Mexico sighting unfairness.

WTO’s own role and operations also crumbled under an anti-globalization tirade by the former leaders, with the US boycotting the WTO appellate body.

The US for instance may have influenced the ability of the WTO to resolve disputes by employing its veto powers to block the appointment of judges.

The blockade seemed to culminate in the resignation of former WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo in May last year and long before the end of his term.

WTO’s greatest Achilles heel has nevertheless been an all-out trade war between the US and China in the past four years.

The pair of power-houses have traded accusations raging from unfair trade practices, currency manipulation and alleged copyright infringement.

The tug war for instance oversaw a slump in global growth in 2019, long-before the onset of the current Covid-19 woes.

Ngozi’s takeover of the WTO is nevertheless seen as a fresh breath of air to global trade even as the world continues to writhe from the impact of trade wars and protectionism , the current covid pandemic and global recession.

As a neutral party to the dispute, aligning to neither the West nor China, Ngozi is seen as an amicable arbitrator to globalisation concerns in a polarized world.

Reality check

The more recent force of the Covid-19 pandemic has further been viewed as a disruptor to global growth and trade with countries enforcing tough measures such as trade and protecting resources as part of managing the pandemic and free flow of trade.

The resolution of the pandemic through interventions such as the manufacture and distribution of vaccines is now seen as a pre-requisite to the resumption of global trade.

WTO’s new Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela has however been alive to this realities as mirrored in her interview with broadcaster NPR on the backdrop of her landmark appointment.

In the interview, Ngozi identified the need for the removal of restrictions on vaccines and medical suppliers as a top priority.

Ngozi intends to use the WTO to have the restrictive rules drop while encouraging the manufacture of vaccines all over the world.

The move according to Ngozi is expected to support inoculation efforts across emerging economies and the developing world reversing the current trend of vaccines concentration in the developed world.

With plenty of responsibility on her hands, Ngozi also admits the WTO has been falling behind its rule in setting the rules for global trading insisting on the need for an upgrade for the lobby to fit the 21st Century which features new elements such as digital economies , e-commerce and integrating global SMEs into growth of trade.

Africa rising

Over and beyond the WTO as a global trade body, the continent is expectant of playing a greater role in world trade stepping out of the shadows and the periphery.

Ngozi’s election to the WTO comes at a time when the continent is waking up to the importance of collaboration in trade as demonstrated by the ratification and implementation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA).

Both manufacturing, innovation, powering nations with extended low cost energy and new infrastructure to grow access to markets are driving the intraafrica trade.

While Ngozi’s priorities will remain aligned to boosting trade on a global scale, Africa’s participation is the wider pool of worldwide enterprise will remain just as crucial in levelling the playing field for all parties engaged in trade.

French based news agency AFP has listed down Ngozi’s priority in the short run including the revival of the WTO Ministerial Conference, the reboot of stalled trade talks, fixing the WTO dispute and settlement system and tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.

The acceleration of inoculations in the developing world has for instance been pegged on Gavi, a public-private global health partnership with the goal of increasing access to immunization in poor countries.

Subsequent to her appointment, Senegal’s former Finance and Economy minister Makhtar Diop was named the new Managing Director and executive Vice President to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s arm tasked with boosting the growth of the private sector in developing countries.

Diop has been an insider at the World Bank Group recently serving as its Vice-President for Infrastructure.

During his reign as the World bank’s Vice President for the Africa region across six year, Diop oversaw a record 70 billion dollars in commitments to private sector players. Private sector leaders salute his appointment and look forward to more investments and development in the region.

Diop has also previously served as the World Bank Country Director for Brazil on two occasions, Kenya, Eritrea and Somalia.

The success of leaders managing global trade and growth of the economies must integrate stronger private public and international partnerships , and support managing the health of the global citizens, during this time of pandemic challenges.

Chris Diaz Brand Africa Trustee and Director EABC