guest columnBy James Williamson
London — It's decision time for the 159 member countries in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which regulates global rules for trade and tariffs. The selection process for the next WTO director-general will begin in earnest in early April.
The nine candidates vying for the post presented their vision to members in January and were given two months to campaign. Now that voting is near, members are debating formal procedures for how the WTO General Council will decide. India has proposed a 4-3-1 formula under which four candidates will be eliminated in the first round, three in the second round and one in the third round. Korea, which has a candidate in the race, has suggested either a 3-2-2-1 or 2-2-2-2 formula. Under the former, three candidates will be eliminated in the first round, two in the second and third rounds and one in the fourth round. Under the latter proposal, there will be four rounds with two candidates eliminated in each round.
It is believed by many diplomats in Geneva that two of the three Latin American candidates are likely to progress to the final rounds - Roberto Azevedo from Brazil and Herminio Blanco from Mexico. Azevedo knows the WTO well, having been Brazil's ambassador to the organization for the past seven years. However, some diplomats say his limited management experience and the fact that he has never held a Cabinet-level position may count against him. The point is also made that his compatriot is heading another major international body, the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. The Mexican candidate has solid credentials, including substantial experience in the private sector, but his compatriot and fellow Cabinet minister, Angel Curria, is heading the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Among the Asia-Pacific candidates, the candidate seen as most likely to progress to the final rounds is Indonesia's former trade minister and now tourism and creative economy minister, Mari Pangestu. It is widely acknowledged that she is conversant with the negotiating issues in the Doha Round, but diplomats point to the fact that Asia has already had its turn. Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi from Thailand, who currently heads UNCTAD, occupied the post from 2002 to 2005.
From Africa, there is the expectation that the former Ghanaian trade minister, Alan Kyerematen, who has been endorsed by the African Union, will progress to the final rounds. His supporters say that he offers a strong combination of skills, pointing to his private and public sector experience, and his diplomatic proficiency, honed when he served as Ghana's Ambassador to the United States fro m 2001 - 2003. Given that Kyerematen is from the opposition party in Ghana, his nomination by the ruling government is advanced to support the view that he is a consensus builder. While Africa is the region with the largest member bloc, the continent's vote could be divided by the presence of another African in the race, Amina Mohamed of Kenya, currently the Deputy Executive Head of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP),
WTO Members should ideally settle on the candidate who will be able to bring all the members together to make progress in the stalled Doha trade negotiations and effectively lead the WTO Secretariat. The person should therefore ideally have strong political and diplomatic skills and adequate management experience. If there is one lesson to be learned from the stewardship of recent directors-general, it is that the person needs to have more than technical skills.
The most important asset would appear to be political judgment and ability to move seamlessly among countries and regional groupings and being able to tell Ministers, where appropriate, that they need to adjust their positions to reflect the fundamental interests of the multilateral trading system. Put differently, the director-general should be capable of working closely not only with Geneva-based officials, but most importantly also with their political bosses (Ministers) in capitals. Such a task can be accomplished more easily by a political figure rather than a technocrat.
It is noteworthy that among the most successful recent heads of the organisation are two political figures – Peter Sutherland of Ireland, who concluded the Uruguay Round and Mike Moore of New Zealand, who launched the Doha Round.
WTO Members cannot afford to make a mistake with their choice considering the need to revive the Doha Round and ensure that the WTO stays relevant as a global institution. Its pre-eminence is being undermined by the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade agreements under which the bulk of world trade currently takes place.
Under the right leadership, the WTO should be able to empower developing countries, particularly least-developed countries, to take advantage of the multilateral trading system to reduce poverty and achieve robust economic growth and sustainable development.
While the WTO Director-General has relatively few powers, they can be used to great effect to achieve positive results for the multilateral trading system if the incumbent has the political dexterity and ability to unite countries to achieve a common objective irrespective of the differences in their positions on the issues.
James Williamson is a London-based trade policy analyst and consultant