Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on how the WTO can tackle vaccine scarcity and global recovery

Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks during a news conference on the annual global WTO trade forecast at the trade body's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on March 31, 2021. Photo by Salvatore Di Nolfi via Reuters

The unequal global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is fragile, warned World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and “there’s one thing behind that all: The issue of vaccine equity.” 

“We’re not really going to have what is [a] sustainable recovery” as long as vaccine scarcity continues, Okonjo-Iweala said at an Atlantic Council Front Page event hosted by the Council’s GeoEconomics Center. “The supply scarcity is driving behavior,” she said, not only fueling countries to competitively bid on vaccines, but also to “bid away vaccines from COVAX,” the global coalition tasked with improving COVID-19 vaccine access. “That’s why COVAX has been struggling to deliver what it should.” 

Okonjo-Iweala outlined ways the WTO can alleviate the scarcity problem across the supply chain for COVID-19 vaccines: by encouraging the removal of trade restrictions while working with manufacturers to unlock bottlenecks and spread their production expertise. “Without the transfer of technology and know-how, you also cannot manufacture or increase output,” she said. Members of the WTO are negotiating a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, and Okonjo-Iweala hopes “they will come to a conclusion that is pragmatic, allowing developing countries to have access but also [protecting] research, development, and innovation.” 

Meanwhile, the WTO, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Health Organization proposed a $50 billion plan to end the pandemic, foster a sustainable recovery, and generate an estimated $9 trillion in global economic returns by 2025. Okonjo-Iweala said the plan includes $10 billion allocated to boosting preparedness for and prevention of future pandemics. 

Here are some of the highlights of Okonjo-Iweala’s vision for the WTO, from her plans to revive trust among its members to her philosophy on bringing the trade body into the digital era. 

A trust-building exercise ahead 

  • Among the WTO’s challenges, “there is a trust deficit between members: between developed countries and developing countries, between China, the US, the EU… You name it, in any configuration,” said Okonjo-Iweala. “[Trust] is something that we really need to build up.”  
  • She suggested that one way to build trust is to revive the WTO’s original purpose set out in the organization’s founding document, the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement. The “WTO is supposed to help enhance living standards for people, create employment, and support sustainable development. This is all about people,” Okonjo-Iweala said. If the organization aims to “make things better for people, then it wouldn’t take twenty years to negotiate an agreement” that benefits people. 
  • The comment alluded to the WTO’s twenty-year negotiations on prohibiting fishing industry subsidies that contribute to global overfishing. Trade ministers will meet to discuss the issue on July 15, and Okonjo-Iweala noted that this meeting may “kick us along the path towards agreement” by the end of 2021. The leader of the negotiations, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the WTO Santiago Wills, has produced a draft agreement “that so far, nobody has thrown out,” Okonjo-Iweala noted. 
  • If WTO members can strike deals such as a fisheries subsidies agreement and “work in these multilateral ways together,” Okonjo-Iweala said, that can begin “to build the trust that you can work together and you can deliver together.” 

Watch the full event

A mission to get with the times 

  • The WTO will also have to “update its rules and move with the times” to build trust among its members, said Okonjo-Iweala. “The world is going digital,” she noted, but she also acknowledged that “the WTO does not yet have an agreement” on digital trade and e-commerce regulations.  
  • With her vision focusing on inclusive growth, Okonjo-Iweala said that a WTO approach to digital is key. She noted that during the pandemic, small- and medium-sized enterprises with digital access avoided shutting down entirely. Women specifically own many of these enterprises, “and when they do have access to the Internet, they can directly connect with their customers, and this is very helpful.” Thus, she concluded, “in order to have a fair, transparent, and level playing field for digital trade, and to solve many of the issues about cross-border data flows, you need some agreement.” 
  • Okonjo-Iweala admitted that, while trade lifted people out of poverty, “people have been left behind.” She partially attributed that to protectionism and to technological changes in economic sectors. Weeks after the Biden administration released a plan for a new US industrial policy in an Atlantic Council speech, Okonjo-Iweala noted that industrial policy can be helpful in building infrastructure (like internet access) but cautioned that “industrial policies that lead to protectionism [are] something we need to watch,” and could be “against WTO rules” depending on their approaches. 
  • Okonjo-Iweala said that eighty-three WTO members are participating in plurilateral negotiations to modernize trade rules for a digital world. “We’re very hopeful that… [by] the next [ministerial], we would be able to come up with an agreement with a set of rules that can help us underpin digital trade.” 
  • But in equipping the WTO to deal with modern challenges, she acknowledged that helping to solve trade’s health and environmental issues, alongside digital issues, will be urgent, too. “I believe we can do it. We can’t do them all at once, but we can sequence what we want to do.” 

Support for Africa’s largest trade endeavor 

  • Okonjo-Iweala is both the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. The Nigeria native hailed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which came into effect in January, as “one of the best things I think the continent has done. … The WTO has been a foundation for putting these rules together and, I hope, will be a companion as we try to implement [it].” 
  • She noted that the WTO is ready to partner with the AfCTFA on issues like digital trade and improving Internet access. “We have a lot of work that we can do together to breach the digital divide,” she said. 
  • Among the ways the WTO can support the AfCTFA, Okonjo-Iweala mentioned that the trade organization can help reduce barriers to the movement of goods and services across borders and encourage investment to create value-added exports and keep jobs on the continent. 

Time for reform? 

  • When asked about differences in opinion among WTO members over issues like the benefits of free trade and the role of the dispute-settlement system, Okonjo-Iweala pushed back by saying that members “believe that trade and trade liberalization is the right way to go,” but that they differ on the way “they put this into practice.”  
  • And while the differences in opinion may pose challenges for the WTO, they don’t erode the organization’s utility, said Okonjo-Iweala, arguing that instead of labeling the WTO as dysfunctional, members should come together to make it work better. “Is the best answer to walk away and say this doesn’t work? This organization, the WTO, has worked for the US, has worked for China, has worked for the UK and the EU, and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and enriched economies. It is still the same organization,” she said. 

Katherine Walla is the assistant director of editorial at the Atlantic Council.  

Further reading