A shaken WTO secretariat

Change is coming to the WTO’s Secretariat, but not without creating some waves within the organization. It was to be expected, WTO watchers tell The Geneva Observer, since the Secretariat has not been the subject of much organizational attention under the two previous D-Gs, Pascal Lamy and Roberto Azevedo. Dr. Ngozi has made the project one of her top priorities, and soon after her nomination, following a public tender, she entrusted consulting company McKinsey with the task of assisting her with her plan.

Ngozi ran for D-G on the promise that she would extensively reform and reshape the WTO, and harbors lofty ambitions for the organization, whose role she sees as larger than simply being the maker and enforcer of the rules governing global trade. Ngozi has often publicly expressed the view that the WTO has the potential to restore faith in international cooperation, contribute to fighting climate change, and of course help the world defeat the pandemic.

“Should it not exist, the WTO should be invented” she told an interviewer; a bold statement about an organization that is facing what some WTO experts call a make-or-break moment. Some suspect that, given the chance, she would reinvent it from scratch—an impression reinforced by the way she has approached the reform of the Secretariat.

‘Transformation’ might be a better word, for she sees it as the cornerstone of the modernization of the WTO, which will require the development of a new conceptual framework and set of rules to deal with digital trade, e-commerce and environmental goods.

The role of the 625-person-strong Secretariat is “to provide top-quality, independent support to WTO member governments on all of the activities that are carried out by the Organization,” according to the organization’s website. It has no decision-making powers, its main duties being to supply impartial technical and professional support to the WTO members. The WTO’s D-G—the first ever woman and African to lead the organization—has wasted no time or energy in her efforts, proving right the prediction of European Bank Director Christine Lagarde that Dr. Ngozi would “rock the place.”

As far as the Secretariat is concerned, she’s rocking it with the support of a large numbers of members who have been closely involved in the review process. Looking for wide and early buy-in from staff, the audit involved the review of more than a hundred documents, with McKinsey’s team conducting more than seventy one-on-one interviews, five focus groups, and two surveys, in addition to getting input from around sixty member states. The consultant’s audit revealed that the WTO Secretariat has a highly capable staff with deep knowledge and expertise, driven by the purpose of the WTO and by the desire to serve its members. It also established that staff felt comfortable in the ecosystem in which they were working, sources close to the audit’s conclusion tell The Geneva Observer.


According to participants of the recent “town-hall-style meetings” spoken to by The Geneva Observer, Dr Ngozi called the Secretariat a “treasure” when she went before the staff a few days ago to share her vision for the organization, the rationale for her reforms, and the results of the audit. But, although the audit concluded in essence that the Secretariat’s fundamentals are sound, it nevertheless flagged several issues of importance when confronted with the most pressing need: how to address the challenges of a completely transformed trade environment.  

According to the same sources, familiar with the audit and its participants, a large majority of Members agree that there is a potential to amplify the organization’s overall impact by having the Secretariat develop a clearer vision, better aligned with the WTO’s strategic priorities. The body also suffers from siloed ways of thinking and an ineffective structure, which often leads to uncoordinated answers on horizontal issues. Rigid resource allocation, a weak approach to talent management, recruitment and promotion, and ineffective processes were also mentioned, as well as difficulties in leveraging data and technology to its full potential.


However, the presentation of the plan appears not to have gone as smoothly as expected. Documents, minutes of meetings, letters, and recordings of various meetings confidentially obtained by the The G|O reveal deep tensions within the organization. More broadly, they shed a light on the difficulties and complexities involved in reforming international organizations. In this instance, a particularly contentious point centers around what some critics of the WTO’s management and of McKinsey consider to be an unbalanced process, skewed towards the demands of the members.

Staff were consulted and, according to figures quoted by McKinsey, responded with a high level of engagement, with a 50% response rate to the surveys. Critics of the process (including people in senior positions who talked to The G|O) do not dispute the figure, but claim that their input was not fully taken into consideration—a perception exacerbated by the fact that the audit was not shared in its entirety, and that no official document has yet been officially produced.

In addition, the decision to take early retirement made by two senior members highly critical of Dr. Ngozi’s management style has amplified some of the tensions. For some, including among her supporters, Dr Ngozi can appear abrasive. “She is this wonderful, soft, very gentle woman with an authentic approach to problems but, boy, under that soft glove there is a hard hand and a strong will behind it,” Christine Lagarde told Bloomberg a year ago.

Time plays in Dr. Ngozi’s favor. Altogether, seven senior positions will have to be filled this year—more if other voluntary departures occur. This is an opportunity for the D-G to bring what she calls “fresh blood” into the Secretariat.

How does she assess the situation? Dated February 3rd, her latest status report to the Members reads: “Change process can be unsettling. As in any change process, there will always be residual noise in the system by those who feel more comfortable with the status quo. […] This may manifest in counterproductive behavior that targets the change process itself or those implementing it.” She also took pains to reassure them that the noise was not loud enough to “distract her.”

For her critics, her letter only deepened a feeling of distrust towards her, as they felt insulted by the fact she seemed to be stifling criticism. A “transformation unit” has been set-up as part of the change process at the Secretariat. No doubt it will be busy over the next few months.