Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala says poorer nations have lost faith in trade body and Covid-19 is chance to prove its relevance
The World Trade Organization needs to be at the forefront of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in order to help restore its battered reputation, one of the favourites to be its next leader has said.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s choice to replace Roberto Azevêdo as WTO director general, said trade rules should ensure that medical breakthroughs save lives everywhere and not just in the countries where they were developed.
In an interview with the Guardian, Okonjo-Iweala said poorer nations had lost faith with the WTO owing to its failure to deliver on the promise of trade liberalisation focused on development, adding that the pandemic gave the organisation the chance to prove its relevance.
“There has to be equitable access to medicines and the WTO could be part of the solution to that. The WTO has to programme the rules of trade in light of Covid-19, she said.
Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister, said intellectual property rights were softened during the HIV/Aids crisis to allow South Africa to produce cheap generic antiretroviral drugs and the same could be done again.
Eight candidates have put themselves forward to replace Azevêdo, including the former UK trade minister Liam Fox. Okonjo-Iweala is viewed as one of the frontrunners along with Kenya’s former ambassador to the WTO Amina Mohamed.
Okonjo-Iweala said her lack of hands-on experience as a trade minister or negotiator did not mean she lacked the qualifications to be the next head of the WTO and said the real issue was a fundamental breakdown in trust among the organisation’s 164 members.
“I have a very strong trade background. Trade is not a siloed discipline. Trade is part of development, something I have been working at my whole life.
“It’s true I am not a WTO insider but that’s a good thing. We need someone who knows trade but brings a fresh pair of eyes.
“There are a lot of people with technical skills at the WTO. There is no shortage of trade skills but the problems are there and they are getting worse. Something else is needed, strong political skills, someone able to engage leaders in a substantive way.”
Okonjo-Iweala said she had a track record of tackling difficult issues, having been responsible as Nigeria’s finance minster for negotiating a debt reduction deal, and for securing more money for grants and soft loans to poor countries while No 2 at the World Bank.
“It can’t be business as usual,” she said. “It can’t be more of the same. It can’t be someone who just knows the issues and how the place works. We have tried that. Of all the challengers for the job I have the right combination of skills.”
Okonjo-Iweala said it was “absolutely essential” to have the US engaged with the WTO, after a period in which Washington has been unhappy about trade rules that treat China as a developing country and the ability of appeal judges to make – rather than simply interpret – trade laws.
“The US has a real frustration that its issues are not being taken onboard. I think it has a point. We need to get the Americans to stay in and work with them,” she said.
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Since it was created in the mid-1990s the WTO has never had an African or a woman as its director general, but the feeling in Geneva is that Okonjo-Iweala or Mohamed are the ones to beat in rounds of voting during which the field is whittled down to five and then a final two.
“Women have the qualifications and the experience but remain a sparse species in leadership circles,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “Look at heads of state: how many of them are women, just a handful? How many women are chief executives? A handful.”
As the co-author of a book with the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard on women and leadership, Okonjo-Iweala said it was time to start redressing the gender imbalance in politics and business.
“Women face a glass cliff: they are given leadership roles only when things are going really badly.”