THE new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, finished her first week at the WTO by meeting with ambassadors and groups of members for solutions-oriented conversations aimed at finding ways for the organisation to deliver results in 2021 and beyond. She kicked off her tenure by attending the General Council session from March 1 to 4.
On March 5, the new Director-General met with the Group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) as well as the Friends of the System, an alliance of small and mid-sized members from different regions and development levels that are committed to a well-functioning multilateral trading system.
DG Okonjo-Iweala also addressed the first meeting of the Structured Discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability, at the invitation of the 53-member group that is exploring ways trade and the WTO can better contribute to achieving environmental goals.
In her discussions with the LDC Group, the Director-General noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had reversed one or even two decades of development progress for many LDCs, and that it continued to disrupt key LDC exports, whether of tourism services, commodities or manufactures. Trade and the WTO had a critical role to play, she said, both in making Covid-19 vaccines more affordable and accessible, and in driving a global recovery in living standards. ‘We are here to make life in LDCs better,’ she added. ‘If we don’t succeed with LDCs, we will not have succeeded.’
Speaking to the Structured Discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability, the Director-General expressed agreement with the group on the ‘need to harness the power of trade for the environment,’ drawing particular attention to climate change and the potential to create jobs in sectors such as renewable energy.
She suggested the group could look at issues including trade in environmental goods and services, how trade could help meet net-zero carbon targets, ways WTO rules could foster circular economies, and options for addressing environmentally harmful subsidies. At the same time, DG Okonjo-Iweala emphasized that ‘the green transition must be just and fair,’ with support for countries that need it, and care to ensure that environmental measures are not misused to discriminate against the exports of developing and least-developed countries.
She thanked the Friends of the System for their efforts to help the wider membership find workable compromises on issues that have long been at an impasse.
Since taking office, DG Okonjo-Iweala has met bilaterally with a large number of ambassadors in Geneva and has spoken to heads of government, ministers and her counterparts at other international organizations. She has also started meeting with regional and issue-based groups, including the Group of Latin American and Caribbean members earlier in the week.
In all of these discussions, the Director-General has urged members to engage with each other, show flexibility and work towards concrete deliverables at the Twelfth Ministerial Conference to be held in Geneva in the week of 29 November.
A top priority for her will be to continue her meetings with individual ambassadors and groups, including the African Group, the Group of African, Caribbean and Pacific states, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next week.