Africa: Why the Next WTO Director-General Should Come From Africa

FOLLOWING THE unexpected announcement by the current WTO Director-General, Mr Roberto Azevedo, on 14 May 2020 that he will be resigning his post on 31 August 2020 instead of 31 August 2021, the race to succeed him has begun in earnest. There are two main issues which WTO members are considering as far as the selection process is concerned. The first is the desired background of the potential successor and the second is which region should the next Director-General come from.

WITH RESPECT to the credentials of the successor, there appears to be agreement among WTO members that the next Director-General should have a political background as opposed to a technical or diplomatic background. In fact, until the appointment of the current Director-General, all the previous leaders had a political background.

THE FIRST WTO Director-General, Peter Sutherland was the Attorney-General of Ireland and later became the Competition Commissioner of the European Union. He was followed by Renato Ruggiero, who was Italy's Foreign Minister. He was then followed by Mike Moore of New Zealand, who held several Ministerial posts and became Prime Minister. After him was Supachai Panitchpakdi who was once the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand. Following him was Pascal Lamy of France, who worked closely as the Chief of Staff of the famed Jacques Delors eventually becoming the Trade Commissioner of the European Union.

THE EXPERIMENT of appointing a career diplomat to head the organization in the person of Roberto Azevedo did not end well, as his lack of political skills prevented him from resolving the trade tensions between China and the United States. The WTO was sidelined and its voice was rarely heard. It is against this background that countries want someone with extensive political experience who will be able to confer with Ministers effortlessly and make known his or her views even if they would not like them. While the person who will be chosen to succeed Roberto Azevedo should have knowledge about trade policy and the broader issues being dealt with by the organization, he or she does not need to be a trade expert and know intimately all the relevant issues.

THE WTO Secretariat is there precisely for that reason. Its cadre of top-notch specialists is widely acknowledged and appreciated by WTO members. There is agreement among African countries and other WTO members on this issue that a person with a strong political background is needed to succeed Roberto Azevedo as the next WTO Director-General.

THERE IS, HOWEVER, no agreement among WTO members on the second issue. Some developed countries believe that it is their turn simply because the last four appointments have rotated among developed and developing country candidates. After Mike Moore of New Zealand was Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand who was succeeded by Pascal Lamy of France who, in turn, was succeeded by Roberto Azevedo of Brazil. African countries strongly disagree with this logic and insist that every continent has had its turn except theirs and that it is long overdue to have an African head, especially considering that the first three GATT Director-Generals came from Europe (Eric Wyndham White of the United Kingdom, Olivier Long and Arthur Dunkel of Switzerland. Developed countries have had the leadership of the GATT/WTO for 62 years, while developing countries have led it for only 10 years.

THE FACT that developing countries also constitute nearly three-quarters of WTO membership should not be ignored. If the view of the developed countries is taken to its logical conclusion, they would have more chances of heading the WTO than developing countries, as they constitute just over a quarter of the membership. The view that it is Africa's turn to provide the next leader of the WTO has a lot of sympathy among several developing and developed countries, especially considering that the other two Bretton Woods institutions are headed by developed countries.

FURTHERMORE, THERE is a view that an African is likely to be a more neutral arbiter considering the intense rivalry between the United States and China. Africa has been marginalized in the multilateral trading system, so it does have a strong interest in reforming the organization to have a level playing field so as to able compete. Last year, Africa's share in world trade was just 3%, which is lower than the share of some smaller Asian countries such as Singapore and Korea. While it would be easy for China to reject demands by a developed country Director-General, who would be seen as a proxy for the United States, it is more likely to cave in to demands by an African Director-General.

IT WOULD ONLY be fair if the next WTO Director-General came from Africa, as Asia and Latin America in the developing world have already had their turn. Africa should not be made to wait for their turn. Appointing a well-qualified African would who meets the benchmarks mentioned above will restore the credibility of the WTO and enable it to pursue the long overdue reforms needed to make the organization fit for purpose in the 21st century. The WTO should avoid the fate of the GATT, which used to be called a "rich man's" club. Developed countries should not think it is only them that can provide excellent leadership of an international organization.

THERE IS NO EVIDENCE on record to suggest that past developed country appointees have performed better than their developing country counterparts. What is needed is a change in mindset of WTO members; they should realize that cooperative actions are likely to strengthen the WTO and enable it to address effectively contemporary challenges facing the institution. The WTO rule book needs to be updated urgently to reflect changes in the global economy to inspire confidence among the members and the private sector. Without a fundamental change in the attitudes of WTO members, the region from which the Director-General comes from is irrelevant.

THIS IS MORE SO the reason for a qualified African to be appointed as the next WTO Director-General. There are many Africans, including Kofi Annan, who distinguished themselves leading international organizations.

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