#14 The G|O Briefing, September 23, 2020

All eyes on New York for a virtual annual General Assembly - A Fox still in the horserace at the WTO - And more

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, a bumper briefing, as we’re still reeling from watching the défilé of strongmen at the UN’s first-ever virtual General Assembly in New York. Facing re-election, Donald Trump opted for a campaign speech from the White House aimed primarily at his base. He played the hits: “The UN must hold China accountable” for the “China Virus.” The UN must “focus on the real problems of the world” in order to be effective before listing a number of issues from which climate change was conspicuous in its absence. The others, not having to face such sordid things as elections anytime soon (Erdogan in 2023, Bolsonaro in 2022, Xi is currently tbc...), struck a more “diplomatic” approach—and these days, that means they didn’t descend to name calling. We’ll have more on the UN at 75 and the outcome document from the UN75 consultations! In the meantime, you can check out Devex’s assessment here, or you can also re-read our profile of Secretary General Guterres, and realize that several years on the question of what kind of SG Guterres really is, is still up for debate.

WHO has had a busy couple of weeks, although all weeks at WHO are busy now... WHO announced on Monday (September 21, 2020) that the COVAX facility will start signing formal agreements with the partner vaccine manufacturers and developers this week after it secured the commitment agreements from States. The week before, it exceptionally held three press briefings with heads of other UN agencies in order to underline the importance of a broad and cross-sectional response to the pandemic. This ‘International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife' is marked World Patient Safety Day with ILO DG Guy Ryder launching a charter on the safety of health workers. It then teamed up with UNICEF and UNESCO to issue updated advice to policymakers on how and when to safely reopen schools.  

And finally, it welcomed the former head of WHO Gro Harlem Bruntland, to mark the publication of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board’s second annual report. The preparedness board is co-chaired by Harlem Bruntland and Elhadj As Sy (Former Secretary General of the IFRC). Its first report—A World At Risk—published in 2019, was certainly prescient. It is also proof of how predictable (and indeed predicted) the pandemic was. “If it is true to say “what’s past is prologue”, then there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability, and insecurity. The world is not prepared.”The second—A World In Disorder—is scathing: The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a collective failure to take pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response seriously and prioritize it accordingly. It has demonstrated the fragility of highly interconnected economies and social systems and the fragility of trust. It has exploited and exacerbated the fissures within societies and among nations. It has exploited inequalities, reminding us in no uncertain terms that there is no health security without social security. COVID-19 has taken advantage of a world in disorder.” The preparedness board was set up two years ago by WHO and the World Bank to “break the cycle of panic and neglect which we have seen through multiple disease outbreaks.” That remains to be seen as, in the words of Dr. Tedros, “Reviews and reports are only as good as the recommendations that are implemented.”  

The World Trade Organization leadership race is down to its final five:

  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)
  • Amina Mohamed (Kenya)
  • Yoo Myung Hee (South Korea)
  • Mohammad Mazia Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia)
  • Liam Fox (UK)

The nomination process, led by the chair of WTO’s General Council, New Zealand Ambassador David Walker, is based around finding a consensus. It involves Walker bilaterally meeting with each Member State (so approximately 163 meetings) to ascertain their order of preference of candidates. We have another month to wait before the five will become two (on October 7), and the final name should be announced by November 7. According to Dmitry Grozoubinski (trade expert and Executive Director of the Geneva Trade Platform, whose first event, The Geneva Trade Week is happening next week), the process has “a lot of capacity to go off the rails if not properly managed.” In this respect, Ambassador Walker benefits both from his own excellent reputation and that of New Zealand as a trusted partner in general. Walker has previously chaired the WTO’s agricultural committee—one of the most sensitive and important negotiation venues in the WTO.

Currently, received wisdom holds that the next DG should be from Africa (and a woman) and should also have high-level ministerial experience. The two formidable African women candidates are thus perceived as the frontrunners—Nigeria’s candidate Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Kenya’s candidate Amina Mohamed. No matter how strong the support for one candidate is though if one country is prepared to officially object, that could scupper their chances (could, for example, Japan decide to object to South Korea’s nominee).

In respect of regional positioning, the revelation that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had dual US citizenship since 2019 (she didn’t mention it in her application documents—there was no requirement to do so)  did make some noise a few weeks ago, although it does not seem to have hurt her. A lack of high-level ministerial experience is one of the theories explaining why highly regarded WTO lawyer and Egyptian nominee Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh did not make it through. And also why the UK’s Liam Fox unexpectedly did. Fox himself sounds like he’s trying to confirm those rumors: “Most of the blockages are political in the global trading system and will have to be sorted out not just in Geneva but in national capitals as well.” “My time as a UK minister in one of the world’s biggest economies with a respected development agenda makes me” the candidate “With the ability to deliver what the membership is demanding.” That would be the second time he was a UK minister. Not the first time when he was forced to resign as Defence Secretary after it emerged he had his best friend—and incidentally, a lobbyist—accompany him on over 57% of his official engagements, handing out business cards suggesting he was a government advisor despite having no official role.

As a central leader of the Brexit movement, Fox is certainly still a polarising figure in the UK. Asked whether his antecedents could count against him, Grozoubinski told The Geneva Observer: “To be honest, I don't get the sense anyone in Geneva cares all that much about those kinds of things. Geopolitically he faces some obstacles and some formidable opponents, but on a personal level, what Members know about him is that Liam Fox has been coming to Geneva forever and that his speeches have consistently been some of the most full-throated defenses of the multilateral trading system and WTO.” If you’re interested in more analysis on WTO, read Dmitry Grozoubinski’s article “The World Trade Organization: an optimistic pre-mortem in hopes of resurrection,” it’s great.  

And Finally, we were happy to see that social entrepreneur Roberta Ventura of SEP Jordan whom we profiled was one of the speakers at yesterday's PeaceTalks, a virtual event jointly organized by Interpeace, UNOG, and the Geneva Peace Platform. When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on her social enterprise project as an update to her profile, she told us that one of the interesting development had been in the realm of digital finance: “COVID-19 forced all businesses to review their models, which is proving costly, but in many cases might be for the best. Many are talking about a "green reset," I hope it is being incorporated in the post-Covid plan. "Most of the SEP artists opened mobile wallets during and after lockdown, and are now receiving their income via their phone. This makes us more efficient, saves us tons of paper which the invoices were printed on, avoids contact with cash unless strictly necessary, and gives access to banking-like services to women who were considered un-bankable before Covid-19.” A concrete example of what the UN Task Force on Digital Financing recommended in its recent report.