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Two women from Africa are among the leading candidates to head the WTO

Candidates have to navigate a highly political process to become director-general of the World Trade Organization

- July 20, 2020

Will the next director general of the World Trade Organization be a woman from Africa? The fact that the United States and China are locked in an epic trade war may make it easier for a middle power from Africa to secure the head position. Here is what you need to know.

Choosing a WTO head is highly political

The position of director general opened when Roberto Azevêdo, a Brazilian who serves in the post announced his decision to step down at the end of August, one year before his second WTO four-year term was set to expire. The nomination period for the position closed July 8, and three of the eight candidates are from Africa.

Two of the leading candidates are African women: former Kenyan trade minister Amina Mohamed; and former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who formerly served as managing director at the World Bank. The candidates have until Sept. 7 to “campaign” and build support.

The WTO works through consensus, and the chair of its General Council leads the selection process. Neither gender nor nationality is an official requirement for being director general, but both matter unofficially. Only men have occupied the role since 1948, when the GATT (the WTO’s predecessor) came into being. Until 2002, the directors general were European.

Developing countries have pressed for more representation

My research shows how developing countries’ collective advocacy and coalition-building in the post-colonial era won them a place at the GATT negotiating table, beginning with the multilateral Uruguay Round for trade from 1986 to 1994. Developing nations have criticized their developed neighbors for duplicity and paternalism in demanding the developing world open its markets while keeping their own closed — especially in textiles and agriculture, which were officially off the table until the Uruguay Round.

Over the 25 years since the GATT became the WTO, directors general from developing countries have led the organization for 10 years. A split in the consensus in 1999 led to three-year terms each for Mike Moore of New Zealand from 1999-2002, and Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi from 2002-2005. Azevêdo has been director general since 2013. Developed countries favored the Mexican candidate in 2013, but Azevêdo won.

In general, it has become harder for developed countries to get behind a single candidate, not just because developing countries are unlikely to support them, but because developed countries can’t agree among themselves. This year the European Union decided not to nominate its own candidate to avoid a dispute with the United States. The United Kingdom nominated former trade secretary Liam Fox, who served under Prime Minister Theresa May. Some analysts argue the nomination may be a way for the U.K. to fight for WTO rules and free trade after leaving the European Union. But Fox’s pro-Brexit position has made the nomination the subject of ridicule inside and outside the U.K.

No candidate can survive concerted opposition from the United States and China, the two leading (and warring) trade powers. But these two powers will find it hard to agree on a DG candidate. Contenders such as Mexican negotiator Jesús Seade Kuri, who may be seen as too close to the United States, might be caught in the crossfire.

Africa may have an opening

Disagreement between the U.S. and China may open opportunities for candidates from Africa, some of whom have been quick to point out their ability to work across the U.S.-China trade conflict and introduce WTO reforms. In a recent BBC interview, Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged China’s assistance to Africa while noting how important it was to listen to trade concerns and anxieties in the United States. Kenyan candidate Amina Mohamed chaired the 11th WTO ministerial meeting in Nairobi, mediating between China and the United States, and carving out an agriculture agreement on reducing export subsidies.

African candidates also have strong credentials. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who beat another candidate from Nigeria for the nomination, was also a leading candidate to become World Bank president in 2012. She lost because the United States sees that position as its prerogative, while a European generally heads the International Monetary Fund. She is a Harvard and MIT-educated development economist who sits on the board of major corporations (including the global vaccine alliance GAVI), and has written and worked on reforming organizations.

Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, an ethnic Somali who was trained as a lawyer and in international relations, was Kenya’s ambassador to the WTO and has chaired its major bodies: the General Council, the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body. She was the first woman to head the WTO’s General Council.

Choosing a female African director general might help the WTO seem responsive to the protests about Black Lives Matter happening around the world, as well as criticisms that the WTO has historically excluded the Global South from its deliberations, and denied it benefits.

Middle-sized powers like Switzerland and New Zealand have led GATT and the WTO for 28 years of its 72-year history and have been especially attractive candidates in periods when there was turbulence and disagreement among great powers. Now, the new middle powers for the WTO may be African.

It may prove difficult for any potential WTO director general to win support in an era when the U.S. is explicitly threatening to leave the organization and when China fears the global trade system may be weaponized against it. Yet these disagreements may favor African candidates — if the ongoing bilateral conflict does not scupper the process altogether through its impact on the future of the WTO.

J.P. Singh is professor of international commerce and policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and the author of Sweet Talk: Paternalism and Collective Action in North-South Trade Negotiations (Stanford University Press, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @Prof_JPSingh.