New WTO chief: ‘I have extreme respect for India and what it does,’ | India Business News

2021-03-01 17:52:24

NEW DELHI: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), describes herself as a pragmatic person. She sets out her agenda in her first interview after becoming the first woman and the first African to bag the top job at the multilateral body.
While she backs discussions on issues of India’s interest, such as public stockholding of foodgrains and safeguard mechanism to guard against a surge in farm imports, the 66-year-old says that it is difficult to ignore that over 100 members are backing discussions on investment facilitation and women-related aspects, which New Delhi is averse to. Excerpts:
It’s a challenging time for WTO. How do you plan to make it relevant and vibrant?
We need to focus the organisation on getting results. The first thing will be to bring back the purpose, because, at times, you lose sight of purpose while negotiating. The purpose is very clear in the preamble to the Marrakesh Agreement: it’s the people. It is about improving their living standards, creating employment and supporting sustainable development.
My objective is to deliver results that matter to people. Right now, the biggest issue that matters to people is solutions to Covid-19. My top-most priority is to see how WTO can contribute in a salient way to (finding) solutions to deal with the pandemic.

The second one is fisheries subsidy negotiations, which have been going on for 20 years. Twenty years are enough. That’s my slogan, we must finish it this year.
Third is the dispute settlement system. There is no point in continuing to make new rules if you don’t have the platform for members to come and put disagreements to settlement and arbitration. Otherwise, you get a situation where bilateral tit-for-tat goes on.
There are other issues like subsidies where we need to do some more work. I am very keen on MSMEs and women in trade because globalisation and world trade have left some people marginalised. Also, technology has led to new changes in sectors such as mining, which is resulting in people losing jobs.
How do you propose to bridge the trust deficit between members?
It is true that there is a trust deficit. It is between the developed countries themselves, between developed countries and emerging markets and between the developing and the developed countries – it’s on all sides. To make good progress we need to build trust. But in my experience, you can’t bring people into a room to talk about it. It is through building confidence with some actions. When you achieve a positive result together, it builds a shared feeling of partnership that begins to bring people together.
What is your view on the proposal by India and South Africa on flexibility under TRIPS for Covid?
Many developing countries have signed the proposal as they feel it will be beneficial. We can discuss and look at some immediate solutions to help increase the manufacturing capacity. India is a perfect example, with Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech. We need to encourage companies to have more manufacturing sites.
The world manufactures 3.5 billion doses of vaccine, but now we are seeking 10 billion doses. However, investment to make this happen has not been done as yet. There are countries in my continent that have not vaccinated even one person. This is not acceptable. We need to get supply facilities working.
Countries like India have some reservations over 21st-century issues, as they argue some of them are non-trade issues. How do you propose to address these differences?
We will approach issues like public stockholding, which concerns developing countries like India, and try to get deliverables. India has tabled some objections to the new issues. Notwithstanding that, some members have decided to come together and discuss them.
What surprises me is the significant number of members who are already discussing some of these issues. For instance, investment facilitation already has 100 members, women issues have 127 members.
India has said something very important on digital economy and e-commerce, the two areas in which it is very advanced. It has spoken about the digital divide, which makes a lot of sense. We should find out what is the digital divide.
Some countries are talking about physical infrastructure problems, and some others will need investment. We will talk to the World Bank and the others. The other issue is the absence of regulatory capacity, for which we can use capacity building initiatives to bridge the digital divide.
Is it time to review the consensus-based approach at WTO?
The consensus-based approach has been enshrined in the Marrakesh Agreement. I have told members they need to ensure that the consensus-based approach does not result in blocking of things that will improve their overall well-being and economic welfare. I want them to define the implication of their decisions on the ordinary person.
What is your view on suggestions that countries such as China, India and Brazil should not get the same benefit as poorer developing countries?
Special and differential treatment (S&DT) is one of the most divisive and delicate issues. The members have to discuss it with each other and come to a consensus. The least developed countries need S&DT for their policy space. It’s something that needs to be looked into to find out what’s the way forward – whether we need to tailor it to suit each member’s development or apply some other approach.
Is there a need to review it?
The idea is enshrined in some of the agreements. Given the way things are evolving, members may want to sit down and talk to each other because it is one of those things that undermine trust. The only way to deal with it is to discuss it and come to some agreement.
What is your expectation from India’s commerce minister Piyush Goyal?
He is somebody I have tremendous respect for. We have had a couple of conversations and he was right on the point. I would expect his support to get results. WTO must deliver some results this year, which means all of us have to come together and cooperate. India is such a force. I have extreme respect for India and what it does.

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