Eight candidates battling to become the next head of the beleaguered World Trade Organization (WTO) make their pitches this week, with three days of auditions starting on Wednesday.
The contenders will make 15-minute presentations to the 164 member states’ representatives at WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, before facing a 75-minute grilling over their plans for the global trade body.
After a series of eliminations based on consensus, starting in September, the winner will take the helm at the WTO in the midst of a global economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The new leader will also have to sort out simmering trade tensions between the United States and China and revive stalled trade talks.
There are three African candidates, two from Asia, two from Europe and one from the Americas.
Africa’s trio are former Nigerian foreign and finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Egyptian former diplomat Hamid Mamdouh; and Kenya’s former WTO General Council chair, Amina Mohamed.
The United Kingdom’s first post-Brexit international trade secretary Liam Fox and former Moldovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi are the two from Europe.
South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee and former Saudi economy minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri are the candidates from Asia, while Mexico’s former WTO deputy director-general, Jesus Seade Kuri, was the first to declare his candidacy.
Seade, Okonjo-Iweala and then Mamdouh are up first on Wednesday. Ulianovschi, Yoo and Mohamed take their turn on Thursday, while Tuwajiri and Fox go on Friday.
“The WTO is in a serious crisis,” Seade told the UN correspondents’ association.
He said the body had “very limited results” to show for its 26 years, its dispute settlement system was “in a serious state of disrepair”, and measures taken by countries to control the COVID-19 pandemic “have generated gigantic dislocation of international trade”.
Since the WTO was created in 1995, three of its directors-general have been from Europe, while one each came from Oceania, Asia and South America.
There is a feeling of optimism with regards to Africa’s chance of winning the seat, even though there is no regional rotation principle at the global trade body.
“It is time that Africa took up her responsibility of serving at the helm of WTO,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
He called Mohamed “a uniquely qualified person to lead the WTO at this critical time”, saying that “her leadership at the WTO will, without doubt, be a game-changer”.
The WTO is staging a swift contest to replace outgoing Director-General Roberto Azevedo.
The campaign phase runs until September 7, after which the eliminations round will last up to two months.
In a surprise move in mid-May, the Brazilian career diplomat announced he was ending his second four-year term 12 months early at the end of August for personal reasons.
Former family doctor Fox, who entered the race on last Wednesday’s deadline, set out his programme for revitalising the organisation.
“If we want to keep the WTO relevant and vibrant, our task is clear: update, strengthen and reform. We must ensure that global trade works for everyone,” he said.