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Controls On Vaccine Exports 'Hold Back' Pandemic Recovery, Warns Incoming WTO Head


The economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic has not been limited to any one country or even continent. It is global. And recovering from that is a top priority for the next director general of the World Trade Organization.

Economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala served twice as the finance minister of Nigeria and had a long career at the World Bank here in Washington, D.C., where she rose to the No. 2 position as managing director. And in just a few days on March 1, she will become the first woman and the first African to lead the World Trade Organization. That is the body that was created in 1995 to help settle trade disputes, write new trade rules and encourage the worldwide flow of goods and services. And even though most people may not really know how the WTO works, its influence on the global economy is vast.

And director general-elect Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is with us now. Welcome and congratulations. Or is it condolences? This is a very difficult time to be taking on this position.

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: (Laughter) Well, thank you so much, Michel, for having me. I think it's both congratulations and commiserations at the same time. It's going to be a tough challenge.

M MARTIN: So as we said, it's - this is a time of global economic disarray, largely because of the pandemic - although, of course, there were sort of underlying issues before that. How would you describe the damage done by the pandemic to global trade?

OKONJO-IWEALA: I would say that it's huge, considerable. Global trade dropped precipitously in 2020, last year. And although it's now being projected to rebound this year, there is no doubt that with the global economy shrinking, as a matter of fact, projections by the IMF for last year was a shrinkage of slightly more than 4% of the global economy. And so global trade goes along with that, you know? Global trade is 60% of the global economy. So when that shrinks, it has a huge impact on trade as well.

M MARTIN: And do you feel that the - your organization-to-be, the WTO, can influence these - this issue, I mean, in the short term?

OKONJO-IWEALA: I believe so, Michel, and I think in a very big way of the public health side because until we solve the public health issues of the pandemic, we can't really get the economic issues settled. I think that is very clear. And how can the WTO help? Well, when people think of vaccines, when they think of therapeutics and diagnostics, it's also traded goods. And to the extent that countries or WTO members have export restrictions or even prohibitions on the exports of these goods, this helps hold back the recovery. So trying to use the rules to monitor strongly and encourage members to drop these restrictions is very important. Up to a hundred members still have them. So I believe the WTO can contribute strongly by trying to get these rules dropped, encouraging free flow of goods helping to exercise the needed flexibilities to encourage more manufacture of vaccines all over the world. I think these are ways to help.

M MARTIN: And of course, this is an immediate and serious crisis, you know, both the health crisis and the economic crisis that is connected to it. But even apart from that, there seems to be wide agreement that the WTO needs urgent reforms. I mean, even - you know, the former U.S. president, you know, obviously expressed himself in a very belligerent, you know, manner that many people found offensive. But he isn't the only one to think that China has been using unfair trade practices and that the WTO's effectiveness as a trade regulating body - I think many analysts would say has been weakened in the face of rising nationalism and protectionism, you know, all over the world. And I just wanted to ask, first of all, do you agree with the critique? And secondly, what are your priorities in reforming the organization?

OKONJO-IWEALA: I agree with the critique that the WTO needs to reform. There's absolutely no doubt about that. And I had said in my campaign that it cannot be business as usual. And first and foremost, I've talked about the top priority for me is seeing how the rules can be looked at so that we can help contribute a solution of this pandemic, both on the health and economic side.

The second area we need to look at is the dispute settlement system. You alluded to it. The WTO has the only place in the entire world where countries can bring disputes, trade disputes they have with each other and have them looked at and settled. So we need to reform this. It's been paralyzed. There's no point making new rules if the place where rules can be - where disputes can be settled is not working.

I think the third aspect is that the WTO has fallen behind in its rulemaking. We need to update rules to 21st century realities. I'll just give you an example. This pandemic has heightened the issue of the digital economy, and e-commerce is booming. And there are no rules right now that underpin e-commerce. There is a set of negotiations going on among members on e-commerce. So the sooner we expand those negotiations and finalize them and come to rules that can really help underpin trade so it is fair, there's a level playing field. It's balanced. Both poor and rich countries can have access. I think these are some of the areas where that - I think they're top priorities to take action.

M MARTIN: I just want to turn around just for the last couple of minutes we have to you. I mean, there are so many firsts in your resume. You are the first woman to serve as finance minister and foreign minister in Nigeria. You will be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. I noticed in looking at your Twitter feed, just - you are receiving congratulations from, you know, top women economic leaders all over the world but also, you know, for want of a better word, civilians, I mean, people who, say, small women business owners, small business owners, you know, all over the world. And I guess I'm - it's just - wonder how that sits with you. Is that - that feels like a lot to carry.

OKONJO-IWEALA: Michel, you're absolutely right. First of all, you know, I really feel humble - and I don't say that mildly - humble and honored to have this kind of wave of recognition and support. My dear sincere hope is that we open the door so that in future, women will just go into these jobs, and it will not create as much noise always as it has.

Second, it does carry a sense of responsibility when people are looking to you and you're in such a public place to do better. But I've been there before. I'm focused on delivering results because I felt that, look, this is what I have to do to make clear that we shouldn't think twice about bringing women into these jobs. And my pride and joy is that since I was finance minister, three more women have been made finance minister in Nigeria. So it's no longer - actually, it's now become the thing, not only in Nigeria but on the continent to have women running finance. Similarly, for this job, I hope to double-down produce results. It's going to be infinitely, of course, more challenging than being at home. But, of course, you know, I hope to use some of the same lessons because being finance minister was not an easy job at all.

But, Michel, I want to say something. I'm not going to let this weigh me down, you know? If you wake up in the morning thinking, oh, my God, I have these huge responsibilities, then you become paralyzed. I'm just going to focus on - how can I get results? How can I get people together to produce for the global economy? And above all, how can I also see that the WTO serves poor countries so that they can also benefit from the multilateral trading system?

M MARTIN: That is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, soon to be the new director general of the World Trade Organization. Director general-elect, thank you so much for speaking with us today. And I do hope we'll speak again.

OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you, Michel. Look forward. It's always a joy to hear from you. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.