By Evelyn Dan Epelle
7th Director-General of the WTO takes historic precedence as ‘first woman to lead the Organization’ – ever
In narrowing the field of candidates campaigning for the office of Director General (DG), the World Trade Organization (WTO) has selected Nigerian-American, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and South-Korean, Yoo Myung-hee as the two candidates securing the ‘broadest and deepest support’ from the second round of consultations with the WTO General Council. Both women will advance to the third and final round for consideration by its members, with consultations holding from October 19-27.
“We are in the third phase of the process to select the next WTO Director-General. The three rounds of consultations for WTO members’ preference, is designed to select the candidate most likely to attract consensus,” the WTO has said in its external communications. With the two finalists for the number one office as women, the 7th Director-General of the WTO takes historic precedence as the ‘first woman to lead the Organization’ – ever.
The world is tuned to COVID-19 recovery as a focal point for the re-opening of global economies. Since a public health crisis induced the global economic pitfall, recovery strategies are built around healthcare and other human-centered approaches to policy design. In picking the next Director-General, the WTO has however emphasized that the ultimate objective of its ‘measured and clearly defined selection process’ is to secure a consensus decision by members on the next Director-General.
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Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has pitched on her campaign trail that she is ‘the only candidate at the intersection of trade and public health’. While timely – due to the dire need to prioritize public healthcare policymaking parallel to other economic recovery efforts – the WTO is primarily concerned with Trade.
The main objectives of the WTO are explicitly stated; (1) to set and enforce rules for international trade, (2) to provide a forum for negotiating and monitoring further trade liberalization, (3) to resolve trade disputes, (4) to increase the transparency of decision-making processes, (5) to cooperate with other major international economic institutions involved in global economic management, and (6) to help developing countries benefit fully from the global trading system.
Guaranteeing equitable access to medical resources, directing and coordinating international health work and regulatory policies are functions that fly primarily at the World Health Organization (WHO). The bigger picture for the top job is contextualized around the internal fragility of the WTO Supreme Court, fueled by trade wars and a global pandemic. A resilient leader with a proven track record of reconciling differences and stage-managing large-scale commerce negotiations will stay afloat.
Already, America has left the group chat at the World Health Organization (WHO). US Vice President, Michael Pence, resounded on October 7 during the vice-presidential debate, that; “China is to blame for the coronavirus, and President Trump is not happy about it.” The US President, Donald Trump, has also been vocal about his feelings, openly referring to China’s entry into the WTO as “one of the greatest economic disasters of all time,” at the Republican Party convention a few weeks ago. Will the United States also hit ‘eject’ on the WTO?
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Going by interests, America will desire a leader that can boldly second its mandate to hold China accountable for breaching trading rules or even confront China on the subject of the novel coronavirus – since COVID-19 originated in China and rapidly spread around the world, plunging many nations into catastrophic medical, social and economic circumstances. It is ideal for China to show support for a leader that can fine-tune its interests in being the chief orchestra of trade. Already, China in Africa is a blossoming concept. This is opposite to America’s dwindling interest in funding the developing continent due to its self-focused approach to governance under President Trump. Within the WTO, where America is now contemplating its presence, China is only one step away from headlining as the majority donor.
The disposition of the WTO concerning the resolution of trade disputes is outlined thus; ‘Members are committed not to take unilateral action against other members. Instead, they are expected to seek recourse through the WTO’s dispute-settlement system and to abide by its rules and findings. The procedures for dispute resolution under the GATT have been automated and greatly streamlined, and the timetable has been tightened.’ (WTO, via Britannica).
WTO reforms and the remarrying of America and China for trade relations will require a leader with extensive experience in Sino-American conventions, and conflict resolution through mediation. South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee checks this box. In addition to frontlining in Sino-American discourse, Yoo Myung-hee is also a renowned arbitrator. Her biography to the WTO recommends her negotiation skill, citing that; ‘she has flourished in her role as a catalyst who brings together diverse views of the parties involved to derive win-win solutions.’
Country Support and Global Citizenship
Although there is no citizenship requirement for the job, last year, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala pledged allegiance to the United States constitution, gaining US citizenship in duality to being a Nigerian patriot. In addition to her job function as a two-time Minister of Finance in Nigeria, she also spent 25 years at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the number two position of Managing Director, Operations. Well-wishers from both countries have since expressed profound support for her WTO campaign, with the Organization of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS) including its 79 member countries, endorsing her candidature.
South-Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee on the other hand is synonymous with non-political ideologies on multilateralism, and her global perspective on trade. She often heralds her experience witnessing Korea grow from an impoverished nation to one of the largest trade nations in the world. When asked how she views the subject of her nationality as supportive or opposing on the campaign trail, Yoo Myung-hee tells Bloomberg; “Rather than focusing on my nationality as Korean, I would like to highlight the advantages, insights, and beliefs that come from my experience in Korea.”
Gender Equality, Inclusion, and Public Sentiment
The WTO is now weeks away from having a female Director-General. Women all over the world are already tuned to the gains of the development, expressing collective positive sentiment about inclusion, alongside groans that the men are stepping down at a time that paves way for the women to inherit broken and havoc-wreaked systems to ultimately ‘fix and refurbish’.
The leading women, however, have shown inherent tenacity by advancing through two tight rounds of consultations, into the third and final round of the selection process.
While Yoo Myung-hee pledges to make the WTO more ‘relevant, resilient and responsive’ on the campaign trail, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala promises to bring ‘a fresh pair of eyes and ears’ to the WTO.
With the two aptly qualified women weeks away from making history, the buck is now on the WTO to fill the seat in line with its inherent vision/mission come November 7.
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