Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has taken the reins as the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization at what critics are calling a crisis moment for the global body.
The organization brings countries around the world together to fairly manage trade, but it’s facing a rise in nationalism and protectionism, structural issues that have made it difficult to settle disputes among members, vital negotiations about sustainability that have gone unresolved for years, and an international pandemic emergency.
Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister from Nigeria who worked for decades at the World Bank, is the first African and the first woman to hold the position of Director-General — a role that will see her, among many other things, help to facilitate agreements among the WTO’s 164 member states.
CBS News’ Haley Ott spoke to her about the major issues facing the organization, and the world, today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Haley Ott: For many Americans, the first time they heard of the World Trade Organization was when former President Trump threatened to leave it. Why is the WTO important, and in a time of increasing nationalism, how do you keep it relevant?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Well, thank you, Haley. The WTO is important because its rules underpin the multilateral trading system, meaning it provides a forum where every country can come and discuss and negotiate trade agreements, and also a place for dispute settlement. You know, in the old days, we used to have trade wars. Now we have a place where countries can come and settle disputes they have among them.
Haley Ott President Biden has rescinded America’s threat to leave the WTO, but he hasn’t completely abandoned President Trump’s approach to trade. He’s said that his policy would prioritize Americans and American workers. Does that worry you?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Not at all. And actually, I want to commend the United States because it never actually left the WTO. It had problems with it, but the U.S. paid its share of the budget and still remained a member. And I’m so glad that President Biden has stated that he wants to revive multilateralism and support of the WTO is one of the ways to do that.
Haley Ott: China is a member of the World Trade Organization, and it’s been accused of using WTO structures to unfairly benefit itself to the detriment of some other members, including the United States. What do you say to critics who say that the WTO has been unable to ensure fair global trade in regards to China?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Well, the WTO was created to ensure a level playing field among all trading nations, transparency, balance, so that the private sector can feel that when they are participating, it’s fair. Now, WTO members have issues that they want to settle with each other. I think that we will work hard at the secretariat to support them so that these issues can be dealt with. We do have some rules about making sure that unfair subsidies are not given? We have to look and see, are those rules still fit for purpose in this modern age, with things evolving? Do we need to make new rules to deal with that?
Haley Ott: One of the main subjects facing the World Trade Organization today is fish, how much certain countries should be able to fish in order to keep global stocks secure. Negotiations have been going on for years, and you’ve stated that it’s one of your goals to come up with an agreement by the end of this year. What do you say to those who say this issue of fish is a real test for the WTO on its ability to deliver on an issue that really matters to people around the world and that, if it’s not able to, it as an organization may not be fit for purpose?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: I agree. It’s as simple as that. You know, it’s unacceptable to have negotiations on an issue going on for 20 years, and I’ve said 20 years is enough. We need to get it done because this is about sustainability of our oceans. It’s contributing to the sustainable development goals that every country agreed on, including the United States. We have to look at over capacity subsidies in fishing that are leading to overfishing and illegal fishing so that our fish stocks will be renewed and sustainable, our oceans will be sustainable for our fish.
Haley Ott: You’ve said that trade and the WTO can help the world address the coronavirus pandemic, which has decimated economies globally. How can trade help deal with the pandemic?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: It’s unconscionable that there are countries in the world, over 130, who have not even started vaccinating any of their people. It’s in the self-interest of the whole world to have everyone vaccinated. So we can help work with manufacturers to see what more sites they can bring in in developing countries and emerging markets to increase supply. The WTO can also look at trade. How can trade help with the recovery? Are there areas where we can liberalize trade more among our members so that we can trade? And that will lift up some countries to contribute to the recovery.
Haley Ott: Some countries have suggested waiving some intellectual property rights to make new technologies accessible for manufacture around the world. Would you support that policy?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Let me say this, Haley. People need to understand what is behind this demand. Because poor countries watched during the HIV-AIDS crisis, they could not get hold of drugs. They were too expensive. Ten thousand dollars. Unaffordable. And people died. It was 10 years before they were able to get access to produce these drugs, generics, to save lives. That memory hurts. The second issue is the fact that the H1N1 pandemic or epidemic that occurred in 2008/9, rich countries bought up all the vaccines and poor countries had no access. So that lies behind this desire to have the intellectual property waiver, for all to have access. Now, that debate is going on. It will be decided among members. But we need to know why it’s important and we need to come to some sustainable agreement. But for now, I’ve advocated what I’ve called a third way, which is we need to boost manufacturing right away so that we can have increased supplies. So it’s not one or the other. I’ve always said, we can walk and chew gum.
Haley Ott: Finally, it’s Women’s History Month. You are the first woman to be the head of the World Trade Organization and the first African person. What does that mean to you and what obstacles still need to be addressed?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Well, it means a lot to me. I love being the first female and the first African, but I always tell people that’s not the most important fact. The fact is that the WTO is facing many challenges and it needs the most competent person to help it come out of those challenges and find solutions. So that’s the important thing. And, well, you know, I’m humbled that people have selected not only the first African and the first female, but someone they believe has the competence to try and deliver.
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Haley Ott is a digital reporter/producer for CBS News based in London.