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Controls On Vaccine Exports 'Hold Back' Pandemic Recovery, Warns Incoming WTO Head

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, pictured in July 2020 in Geneva, will head the WTO beginning in March. She wants countries to drop restrictions on the export of vaccines and other medical supplies.
Fabrice Coffrini, AFP via Getty Images

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, pictured in July 2020 in Geneva, will head the WTO beginning in March. She wants countries to drop restrictions on the export of vaccines and other medical supplies.

The incoming head of the World Trade Organization says getting countries to drop export restrictions on vaccines and medical supplies needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic will be one of her top priorities.

Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is set to become the WTO's director-general on March 1. She's the first woman and first African to lead the group that governs trade rules between countries.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on global trade, which "dropped precipitously in 2020," Okonjo-Iweala tells NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered.

Overall, the global economy contracted by 4.3% in 2020, according to the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund predicts the global economy will grow by 5.5% in 2021. But variants of the coronavirus and vaccine rollout complications make those forecasts uncertain.

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"Until we solve the public health issues of the pandemic, we can't really get the economic issues settled," Okonjo-Iweala says.

Okonjo-Iweala talked with NPR about the WTO's role in improving access to vaccines, areas where she feels the WTO needs reform and being the first woman to head the organization. Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity and length.


Interview Highlights

Do you feel that the WTO can influence this issue in the short term?

How can the WTO help? Well, when people think of vaccines, when they think of therapeutics and diagnostics, these are also traded goods. And to the extent that countries, WTO members, have export restrictions or even prohibitions on the exports of these goods, this helps hold back the recovery.

So trying to use the rules to monitor strongly and encourage members to drop these restrictions is very important. Up to a hundred members still have them. So I believe the WTO can contribute strongly by trying to get these rules dropped, encouraging a freer flow of goods, helping to exercise the needed flexibilities to encourage more manufacture of vaccines all over the world. I think these are ways to help.

The WTO's effectiveness as a trade regulating body, I think many analysts would say, has been weakened in the face of rising nationalism and protectionism. ... Do you agree with the critique? And secondly, what are your priorities in reforming the organization?

I agree with the critique that the WTO needs reforms, there's absolutely no doubt about that. And I had said in my campaign that it cannot be business as usual. The reason is that the WTO is about people. It even says so in the preamble to the agreement that was made in Marrakesh [to establish the WTO]. It's to improve living standards, to help create employment, support sustainable development. And so it must be reformed to ensure it contributes to those.

And first and foremost, I've talked about the top priority for me, seeing how the rules can be looked at so that we can help contribute to a solution of this pandemic, both on the health and economic side.

The second area we need to look at is the dispute settlement system. You alluded to it. The WTO has the only place in the entire world where countries can bring disputes, trade disputes they have with each other, and have them looked at and settled. So we need to reform this. It's been paralyzed. There have been criticisms of the way it functions, that it goes beyond its mandate. And there are genuine criticisms that we need to look at from all members. And we need to reform that quickly.

... There's no point making new rules if the place where disputes can be settled is not working.

I think the third aspect is that the WTO has fallen behind in its rule-making. We need to update rules to 21st century realities. I'll just give you an example. This pandemic has heightened the issue of the digital economy and e-commerce is booming. And there are no rules right now that underpin e-commerce. There is a set of negotiations going on among members on e-commerce. So the sooner we expand those negotiations and finalize them and come to rules that can really help underpin trade so it is fair, there's a level playing field, it's balanced, both poor and rich countries can have access. I think these are some of the areas where I think our top priority is to take action.

There are so many firsts in your resume. You are the first woman to serve as finance minister and foreign minister in Nigeria. You will be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. ... That feels like a lot to carry.

My sincere hope is that we open the door so that in future women will just go into these jobs and it will not create as much noise always as it has. Second, it does carry a sense of responsibility when people are looking to you and you are in such a public place to do better. But I've been there before.

I'm focused on delivering results. Because I felt that, look, this is what I have to do to make clear that we shouldn't think twice about bringing women into these jobs. And my pride and joy is that since I was finance minister, three more women have been made finance minister in Nigeria. So actually it's now become the thing, not only in Nigeria but on the continent, to have women running finance. ...

If you wake up in the morning thinking, oh my God, I have these huge responsibilities, then you become paralyzed. I'm just going to focus on: How can I get results? How can I get people together to produce for the global economy? And above all, how can I also see that the WTO serves poor countries so that they can also benefit from the multilateral trading system?

Jeff Pierre and William Troop produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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