The 15th of February 2021 will be marked in history as the day on which an African woman, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was elected for the first time as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was a proud day for women around the world and for us in Africa.

In addressing the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala said, “Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.” Today, the WTO faces two of the most challenging crises. 

First, the current economic crisis threatens to have devastating consequences for the entire trading system that was painstakingly developed over decades. In a globalised world, an export-driven China, as the super-factory of the world, amassed huge trade surpluses, some of which were bartered for with commodity concessions exchanged for infrastructure development in developing countries. The Trump administration in the United States responded to this economic dominance threat with “Make America Great Again”, an inward looking policy, coupled with a tariff war with China. Consequently, over the last five years, we have seen an increasingly divided world characterised by competitive geo-economic and geo-political alliances.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in China, disrupted supply chains across the world, mainly to countries dependent on goods from China. This set off a debate around the “on-shoring” or “near-shoring” of supply chains. These developments challenge the global trading system in a world that is increasingly linked through technology, tourism and trade. Growing nationalism threatens the entire economic and political foundations of our world, precisely at a time when we need more global cooperation and collaboration. 

The WTO will have to intervene and likely change how it conducts business from an adversarial litigious bias to a mediation approach to bridge the divide between the two emerging power blocs. In the WTO’s World Trade Report 2007, the former Director-General, Pascal Lamy, said, “As an institution we legislate and litigate, and I believe we do this reasonably well. But is there something of a ‘missing middle’ where we should be engaged more in fostering dialogue that can bolster cooperation?”

The second major challenge is a moral one and relates to Okonjo-Iweala’s membership on the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations board. Its mission includes, “saving children’s lives and protecting people’s health by increasingequitable use of vaccines in lower-income countries”. The website for the Alliance states that it is co-leading COVAX, the global coalition for “pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual COVID-19 vaccines”. The vaccines have now arrived in Africa, produced by a number of private and public manufacturers. The only problem is that these vaccines are not pooled, and neither are they being distributed equitably! 

At the heart of this moral conundrum is the WTO. It controls and regulates global intellectual property (IP) rights through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, IP rights are vested with multi-nationals, many of whom had their COVID-19 vaccine research subsidised through public funds. Only an IP waiver from the WTO will allow developing countries, such as India, South Africa and Brazil, with the capacity to manufacture vaccines to mass-produce them and ensure equitable distribution. Currently, 16% of the global population in mainly richer countries hold 45% of the vaccine supply,[1] either because they paid for it or produced it. Many of these countries have an over-supply of vaccines. 

The current global reality is a world divided economically and politically and driven by (vaccine) nationalism. Will the WTO rise to the occasion and conduct business differently?  Will it create a new reality where national interest does not take precedence over global responsibility?

Vasu Gounden is the Founder and Executive Director of ACCORD.


[1] Mirza, Atthar and Rauhala, Emily (2021) ‘Here’s Just How Unequal the Global Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout has Been’, The Washington Post, 6 May 2021. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/coronavirus-vaccine-inequality-global> [Accessed 11 May 2021]. 

Vasu Gounden
Vasu Gounden
Founder & Executive Director