Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala explains how WTO can tackle vaccine shortage and global recovery
The uneven global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is fragile, warned World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and “there is one thing behind it all: the issue of vaccine equity ”.
“We’re not really going to have what is [a] sustainable recovery ”as long as the vaccine shortage continues, Okonjo-Iweala said at an Atlantic Council home page event hosted by the Council’s GeoEconomics Center. “Scarcity of supply drives behavior,” she said, prompting not only countries to bid competitively on vaccines, but also to “push vaccines away from COVAX,” the global coalition in charge of improve access to COVID-19 vaccines. “This is why COVAX is struggling to deliver what it should. ”
Okonjo-Iweala described ways the WTO can alleviate the shortage problem along the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain: by encouraging the removal of trade restrictions while working with manufacturers to unblock bottlenecks throttling and disseminate their production expertise. “Without the transfer of technology and know-how, you also cannot manufacture or increase production,” she said. WTO members are negotiating a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, and Okonjo-Iweala hopes “that they will come to a pragmatic conclusion, allowing developing countries to have access but also [protecting] research, development and innovation.
Meanwhile, the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Health Organization have proposed a 50 billion dollar plan to end the pandemic, foster a sustainable recovery and generate an estimated global economic return of $ 9 trillion by 2025. Okonjo-Iweala said the plan includes $ 10 billion allocated to strengthen preparedness and prevention future pandemics.
Here are some of the highlights of Okonjo-Iweala’s vision for the WTO, from his plans to rekindle confidence among its members, to his philosophy of bringing the trade body into the digital age.
An exercise in confidence to come
- Among the challenges of the WTO, “there is a lack of trust between members: between developed and developing countries, between China, the United States, the EU… You name it, in any configuration, ”said Okonjo-Iweala. “[Trust] is something that we really have to build.
- She suggested that one way to build confidence is to revive the original purpose of the WTO as set out in the organization’s founding document, the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement. The WTO is supposed to help improve people’s living standards, create jobs and support sustainable development. It’s a question of people ”, Okonjo-Iweala said. If the organization aims to “make things better for people, then it wouldn’t take twenty years to negotiate a deal” that benefits people.
- The comment referred to the twenty-year WTO negotiations to ban fishing industry subsidies that contribute to global overfishing. Trade ministers will meet to discuss the issue on July 15, and Okonjo-Iweala noted that this meeting could “get us on the path to an agreement” by the end of 2021. Head of negotiations, Permanent Representative of Colombia to of the WTO, Santiago Wills, produced a draft agreement “that so far nobody has rejected,” noted Okonjo-Iweala.
- If WTO members can strike deals like an agreement on fisheries subsidies and “work together multilaterally,” Okonjo-Iweala said, it can begin to “build the trust that you can work together and that you can deliver together.”
Watch the full event
A mission to live with the times
- The WTO will also have to “update its rules and evolve with the times” to build trust among its members, said Okonjo-Iweala. “The world is going digital,” she noted, but also acknowledged that “the WTO does not yet have an agreement” on the regulation of digital commerce and e-commerce.
- With his vision focused on inclusive growth, Okonjo-Iweala said a WTO digital approach is essential. She noted that during the pandemic, small and medium-sized businesses with digital access avoided shutting down entirely. Women in particular own many of these businesses, “and when they have access to the Internet, they can connect directly with their customers, which is very useful.” So, she concludes, “In order to have a level playing field for digital commerce, and to solve many issues related to cross-border data flows, you need an agreement. “
- Okonjo-Iweala admitted that while trade lifted people out of poverty, “people were left behind.” She attributes this in part to protectionism and technological changes in economic sectors. Weeks after the Biden administration released a plan for a new U.S. industrial policy in an Atlantic Council speech, Okonjo-Iweala noted that industrial policy can be helpful in building infrastructure (such as access Internet), but warned that “industrial policies that lead to protectionism [are] something that we need to watch, ”and could be“ contrary to the WTO rules ”depending on their approaches.
- Okonjo-Iweala said eighty-three WTO members are participating in plurilateral negotiations to modernize trade rules for a digital world. “We very much hope that … [by] the following [ministerial], we would be able to come to an agreement with a set of rules that can help us support digital trade. “
- But in equipping the WTO to face modern challenges, she recognized that it will also be urgent to help tackle the health and environment issues of trade, alongside digital issues. “I believe we can do it. We can’t do them all at the same time, but we can sequence what we want to do.
Support for Africa’s largest commercial enterprise
- Okonjo-Iweala is both the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. Nigerian hailed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which entered into force in January, “One of the best things I think the continent has done. … The WTO has served as the basis for the development of these rules and, I hope, will accompany us in our efforts to implement them. [it]. ”
- She noted that the WTO is ready to partner with AfCTFA on issues such as digital trade and improving internet access. “We have a lot of work that we can do together to bridge the digital divide”, she said.
- Among the ways in which the WTO can support AfCTFA, Okonjo-Iweala mentioned that the trade organization can help reduce barriers to the movement of goods and services across borders and encourage investments to create exports. value-added and maintain jobs on the continent.
Time for reforms?
- Asked about the differences of opinion among WTO members on issues such as the benefits of free trade and the role of the dispute settlement system, Okonjo-Iweala responded by saying that members “believe that trade and trade liberalization is the right way to go, ”but differ on how“ they put it into practice ”.
- And while differences of opinion can pose challenges for the WTO, they do not erode the usefulness of the organization, Okonjo-Iweala said, arguing that instead of calling the WTO dysfunctional, members should come together to make it work better. “Is the best answer to go away and say it’s not working?” This organization, the WTO, worked for the United States, worked for China, worked for the United Kingdom and the EU, and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and richer economies. It’s still the same organization, ”she said.
Katherine Walla is Associate Editorial Director at the Atlantic Council.
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