World Trade Organization delivers for Africa

By Lansana Gberie.

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, the energetic and resourceful Director General of the World Trade Organization, stood up and told delegates at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12): in all areas we have worked on.

She then listed a set of agreements now known as the Geneva package – covering among others a waiver of intellectual property protections to strengthen countermeasures against COVID-19, a long illusory agreement on subsidies to fishing 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, a day before the conference opened, Nick Dearden, a columnist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, wrote that delegates arriving for this conference would find the organization in an “existential crisis.”

Amid a pandemic, Dearden lamented that WTO members are still hesitant to temporarily waive proprietary 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 — as about Africa — is almost always a safe bet. Only this time the pessimism was 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 warning.

The fisheries deal also includes a cut of around US$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), 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.

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 over 90% of COVID-19 vaccines, and over 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 World Food Program (WFP) humanitarian purchases. ), 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.

Dr. Lansana Gberie is Chairperson 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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