Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new Director-General (DG) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), has taken office with a call on members to “do things differently” to achieve reforms necessary to keep the world trade body relevant.
She promised to start with swift actions to curb harmful fisheries subsidies and to help scale up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala in her inaugural address in Geneva, which was made available to the Ghana News Agency by the WTO, noted that high expectations for her tenure could only be met if members were willing to compromise and reach agreements.
She suggested that prospects for a successful Twelfth Ministerial Conference would be enhanced if members targeted a manageable number of deliverables for this year, and set up longer work programmes to address issues that could not realistically be resolved within that timeframe.
“I am delighted to be with you in Geneva even if circumstances do not yet permit all of us to meet in the same room,” she said.
“Let me at the outset express my gratitude to our Chair, Ambassador Walker, incoming Chair Dacio Castillo, and Ambassador Aspelund for their hard work and persistence in getting me here.
“As I take office as DG, I want to thank you Members once more for the kind wishes and support many of you expressed two weeks ago when you made history by electing me.”
She said: “I remain honored and humbled by the confidence Members have placed in me. I will bring all my knowledge, passion, experience, and persistence to the task at hand, reforming the organization and achieving results.”
The DG said she was conscious that expectations were high and assured to do her utmost to move the WTO forward; stating that “however, this is a membership-driven organization so I cannot do it without you, I cannot do it without the cooperation of staff and management”.
“What we are involved in is a tripartite partnership. Each partner has to play their part if we are to get results.
“High expectations of my leadership also means that I have high expectations of you to help me deliver,” she added.
“I have said it. It cannot be business as usual. We have to change our approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results.”
With regards to COVID-19, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said there was a demand for a Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for COVID-19 vaccines by a growing number of developing countries and that the dialogue was intensifying.
“Whilst this is happening, I propose that we “walk and chew gum” by also focusing on the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries that were yet to vaccinate a single person,” she said.
“People are dying in poor countries. We just had our first COVAX shipment to Ghana last week and others will follow but it will not be enough.”
She said there was serious supply scarcity and some countries were outbidding COVAX and diverting supplies.
The DG said the world had a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and they now sought to manufacture 10 billion doses.
“This is just very difficult, so we must focus on working with companies to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries,” she said.
“We must get them to work with us on know-how and technology transfer now.”
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said there would soon be a world manufacturing convention where they would seek to build this partnership.
“I also hope we can initiate a dialogue and information exchange between us and representatives of manufacturers associations from developing and developed countries. This should happen soon so we can save lives.”
She said that would be an interim solution whilst they continued the dialogue on the TRIPS waiver.