The WTO is at the height of Africa

In a time of pandemic and war-related pessimism, a gripping moment of true multilateral triumph must be celebrated.

In the early hours of June 17, after several sleepless nights, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director General of the World Trade Organization, supernaturally energetic and resourceful, stood up and, her voice rising crescendo , told exhausted delegates words few had envisioned would be spoken at the end of the organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12): “You have stepped up and delivered in every area we have worked on.”

She then listed a set of agreements now known as the Geneva package – covering, among other things, a waiver of intellectual property protections to strengthen countermeasures against COVID-19, a long illusory agreement on fisheries subsidies and a decision on food insecurity.

These achievements have demonstrated, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said, that the WTO “is, indeed, capable of responding to the urgencies of our times”.

She hailed a world in which WTO members “can come together, across geopolitical fault lines, to solve the problems of the global commons, and to strengthen and reinvigorate this institution.” WTO agreements are reached by consensus and are binding on members.

Multilateralism, attacked on several fronts, received a bullet in the arm which saved its life.

The triumphant result of the MC12 was anything but expected. In fact, on June 13, the day before the opening of the conference, Nick Dearden, columnist at the British newspaper Guardian newspaper, wrote that delegates arriving for that conference would find the organization in an “existential crisis.”

Amid a pandemic, Mr. Dearden lamented, WTO members were still hesitant to temporarily waive the property rights of pharmaceutical companies to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines; and many of them were still perplexed about a “common approach” to the growing global food crisis. It was time, he wrote, to “bury” the organization.

Pessimism about the WTO – like Africa – is almost always a safe bet. Only this time, pessimism lost.

The advantages of Africa

First, there was agreement on the definition of fish. It was no small feat. For the past 21 years, since the launch of the fisheries negotiations in Doha, this has been one of the thorniest issues. Fish, the agreement now states, “means all species of living marine resources, whether processed or not”. The old canard he understands “aquatic plants” had been quietly dropped, almost without notice.

The fisheries deal also includes a cut of around $22 billion in annual government subsidies to rich-country fishermen who ravage African waters. In other words, this agreement, while helping to protect the livelihoods of millions of small-scale and artisanal fishing communities in Africa and elsewhere, will also help protect the health of the oceans.

The WTO director-general writes that it is the first such pact in the history of the WTO “with a primarily environmental objective at its heart”.

That alone would count as a major achievement.

Waiver of Intellectual Property Rights

Second, the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver decision will help diversify countries’ vaccine manufacturing capacity, and Africa stands to benefit.

The waiver request was submitted by India and South Africa in October 2010, long before Dr Okonjo-Iweala became Director General. This request triggered a counter-proposal from the European Union. Things stalled until she began a highly creative process, bringing together India and South Africa (the initial promoters), and the European Union and the United States (two key rights holders) . Within five months, the Quad produced a “final document” which served as the basis for serious negotiations.

For full disclosure, I facilitated these negotiations as Chairman of the TRIPS Council from early May until the Ministerial Conference. However, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala and her deputy, Ms. Anabel Gonzalez, helped guide these negotiations. This is the last decision that was made, at 4:30 a.m., shortly before the closing of the conference.

Work on extending the waiver to cover therapeutic and diagnostic products, as required by Decision MC12, has already started and is due to be completed by the end of December this year. In the meantime, the decision will be celebrated in Africa, especially in countries with the capacity to manufacture vaccines.

Hated by pharmaceutical companies for going too far and by civil society for not going far enough, the TRIPS ruling would help African countries work together to build and diversify vaccine production capacity. It will provide a streamlined route for exporting vaccines to countries in need, either directly or through international humanitarian programs.

Currently, four WTO members (US, EU, UK and Switzerland), all located in the northern part of the world, produce more than 90% of vaccines against COVID-19, and more than 70% of Africans are still not vaccinated.

Third, amid current global food shortages and record food prices, the MC12 Declaration on Food Insecurity includes a decision that removes export bans and restrictions on humanitarian purchases by the World Food Program (WFP). ), ensuring that food aid reaches the most vulnerable. Hundreds of millions of Africans suffer from hunger. Dr Okonjo-Iweala said the move would help WFP “do its difficult job of feeding millions” of people facing hunger.

The fact that she was working on many difficult issues and still overseeing other negotiations, including the fight against food insecurity, underlines her deep commitment to the developing world, especially her continent, Africa.

Exceed expectations

Success triggers higher expectations, as well as negative reactions. Empires always defend themselves. The struggle to firmly integrate Africa into the global trading system must continue. Remember that the WTO, which sets rules that facilitate about 97% of global trade, has helped to greatly enrich the developed world by opening up global trade to their businesses. By some estimates, the organization, and its predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), has helped increase trade among its members by around 171%.

Africa’s share of world trade has actually declined from around 4.4% in 1970 to around 3% today. Our sincere friends and detractors never tire of reminding us of this. It is time to reverse this trend. And in Dr Okonjo-Iweala, Africa has a champion.

The Doha cycle or the 4th ministerial conference of the WTO in November 2001 for the first time put development as the central objective of world trade on hold. More than two decades later, that feeling remains simply an aspiration. This must become a political objective.

I wrote shortly after Dr Okonjo-Iweala took over as Chief Executive that the growing expectation of what she could bring to the continent must be tempered, in part because of the sheer difficulty of taking decisions in an organization that is changing at a freezing pace. , and where paradigm-shifting decisions tend to be carefully avoided. But through willpower, hard work and tremendous goodwill, the WTO, under his leadership, is doing more than anyone could have expected.


Highlights of the Geneva Package

  1. a set of measures on the WTO’s response to emergencies, including:
  2. a Ministerial Declaration on the emergency response to food insecurity (
  3. a ministerial decision on procurement of World Food Program (WFP) food products exempted from export bans or restrictions
  4. a ministerial statement on the WTO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and preparedness for future pandemics
  5. a Ministerial Decision on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
  6. a decision on the moratorium and the work program on e-commerce
  7. an agreement on fisheries subsidies
  8. a Decision on the work program on small economies
  9. a Ruling on complaints of non-violation of the TRIPS Agreement

All packaging documents can be found here.

Dr. Lansana Gberie is Chair of the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to Switzerland

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