By Jamshed Baruah
World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has applauded India’s pledge of support for the WTO and a successful 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) that will take place from November 30 to December 3, 2021, in Geneva. The gathering was originally scheduled to take place from June 8 to June 11, 2020, in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WTO chief completed a three-day visit to India on October 22, during which she met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and with the country’s ministers for commerce, finance and external relations.
“I wanted to share with Prime Minister Modi and his senior officials where we are with respect to preparations for MC12 and secure India’s leadership,” DG Okonjo-Iweala said. “India is a leader, India has a strong voice at the WTO and if we are to have a successful MC12, India’s leadership will be very important.”
Okonjo-Iweala is the seventh Director-General of the WTO, the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. She took office on March 1, 2021, becoming the first woman and the first African to serve as head of this important body. Her term of office will expire on August 31, 2025.
While in India, she wanted to “make sure agreements are balanced, taking the views of both developing and developed members into account in a fair manner”. She added: “Nobody, India included, gains from a WTO that is unable to address pressing challenges such as removing barriers to vaccine access, halting the depletion of the world’s fish stocks and ensuring food security. We look forward to India’s leadership in addressing those challenges.”
Okonjo-Iweala discussed with Mr Modi multilateralism, structural reforms to the Indian economy, and the road to MC12. Mr Modi stressed that India is a large democracy and there is a need to listen to India and take its views into account. The Prime Minister also reiterated his and India’s support to the WTO.
The WTO DG congratulated the Prime Minister and his government for achieving the milestone of administering 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses as well as India’s recent decision to lift export restrictions on vaccines.
Together with South Africa, India applied for approval of a waiver over Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) for COVID-19 vaccines so that they could produce the vaccines—especially Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines—to help their countries as well as many developing countries to recover faster from the pandemic.
But the European Union (EU), United Kingdom, Japan and Australia are holding the world hostage by refusing to support a waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents. Therefore, the World Trade Organization (WTO) remains
WTO Chief also underlined India’s important leadership role at the WTO and the need for members to show flexibility in securing outcomes at the Ministerial Conference. A successful MC12 is important to the future of the organization and the multilateral trading system as a whole, she stressed.
DG Okonjo-Iweala also met with business leaders and vaccine manufacturers on October 21 at events organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry. She heard from industry the current supply chain challenges they face and what the WTO could do to help address them. She urged India’s business community to take a more proactive role in the WTO discussions and said their support was needed to achieve successes at MC12.
The DG heard from vaccine manufacturers about their efforts to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution and the challenges they face in overcoming bottlenecks and securing supply chains.
She noted the work by her and other agency heads on the Multilateral Leaders Task Force on COVID-19 to help track, coordinate and advance delivery of COVID-19 health tools to developing countries and to mobilize efforts to remove critical roadblocks. Vaccine manufacturers stressed their concerns about eventual worldwide excess capacity for vaccine manufacture as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course.
The DG also met on October 21 with a group of Indian tech firms and start-ups to discuss how the digital economy is contributing to India’s development and the various initiatives under way in areas such as e-payments, digital health, and development of new e-commerce platforms.
On October 22, she met with women representatives of various self-help groups engaged in efforts to meet the needs of poorer communities during the pandemic. The discussions underlined the DG’s call for the WTO to return to its core principles of using trade to further sustainable development and employment and raise living standards.