At the World Trade Organization, a war–both inside and out

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 625-person-strong secretariat is the brain of the organization. It has no decision-making powers, its main duties being to supply impartial technical and professional support to WTO members. Reforming it was never going to be an easy task, but immediately after her nomination in March of last year, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made that one of her main priorities.

As we reported back in February, the process has not been smooth. Three months later, the discontentment has only increased (informed sources tell The G|O), largely due by Dr. Ngozi’s continuous refusal to share the McKinsey report she is using as a roadmap for the reform. The G|O has learned that apart from a very few members of her inner circle, neither her staff nor governments have been given access to the report—a situation that has some Member States questioning her commitment to transparency.

The criticism is no longer just an internal matter. Several Missions confirmed to The G|O that only a summary of the McKinsey report has been shared with them while the full document remains confidential. In private, some diplomats have complained that not being in possession of the full audit makes it difficult for them to take an informed position on the proposed reform. Earlier this month, staff members had pinned their hopes on a Budget Committee meeting as an occasion to address, head-on, the many questions raised by the reform. That did not happen.

Diplomats and WTO watchers we talked to agree that with an important Ministerial Conference (MC) scheduled in June, now is not the time to “open the Pandora’s box of the reform” and risk diverting focus from the MC.

However, many are increasingly questioning Dr Ngozi’s management and communication style: Since her arrival at the helm of the organization a little over a year ago, Dr. Ngozi has had no less than twelve personal assistants. Two of them have requested extended sick leave, internal sources tell us.

Also on trial is her willingness to publicly “oversell” early agreements as successes. She has touted a draft proposal on the contentious patent waiver for COVID-19 brokered between India, South Africa and the US as a breakthrough, and in the process, remarkably managed to align health activists, Big Pharma and governments, who all denounced the announcement as premature. A formal text of the agreement should be circulated soon. It is expected that those countries excluded from the negotiations will voice their complaints about the deal and the way it was pushed by the WTO chief.

In addition, although it is not of Dr. Ngozi’s doing, Putin’s war and Russia’s de facto exclusion from the multilateral arena has opened a deep rift among the 164 members of the organization. Diplomats from Western countries routinely boycott meetings with their Russian counterparts. If the dynamics don’t change before June, the chances of any agreement being reached at the MC look seriously slim. “Once again, the WTO Ministerial [Conference] and failure might be walking side by side,” a Latin American diplomat told The G|O.

Today, some diplomats and trade experts are openly expressing their fears that the upheaval created by Putin’s war on Ukraine might create irreparable damage to the organization—at the very moment when the world desperately needs a functioning independent arbiter of trade.