WTO chief set to launch internal shake-up to revitalize organization

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GENEVA, Switzerland – The World Trade Organization was due to launch an internal overhaul on Tuesday in a bid to breathe some life back into an institution where progress has all but stalled.

Almost a year after taking office at the WTO, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was due to announce at her headquarters a plan to restructure the secretariat, which has not changed much since the creation of the world trade body. in 1995.

The former Nigerian minister of finance and foreign affairs, the first woman in the WTO and the first African leader, wants to revitalize the organization, which is struggling to conclude trade agreements and faces several daunting challenges.

“Like all his predecessors as director-general, Dr Ngozi took office promising to update the structure and operations of the secretariat,” a WTO official told AFP, adding that the The global trading environment was now radically different from that of the mid-1990s.

“She’s moving forward with that promise she made to the members.”

Part of Tuesday’s meeting “consisted of updating colleagues on what’s going on with this process and plans for the next few months,” the official said.

The WTO headquarters, a classic 1920s-style building on the shores of Lake Geneva, has 625 staff, mostly economists, lawyers and other specialists in international trade policy.

As WTO decisions are taken by consensus among its 164 members, the main tasks of the secretariat are to provide advice, technical assistance to developing countries and legal assistance in the dispute settlement process.

After taking office in March 2021, Okonjo-Iweala commissioned management consultants McKinsey to carry out an external audit of the functioning of the secretariat and provide advice on necessary changes.

In the meantime, it remains unclear what specific observations and recommendations were made in the report, which has not been published or even provided to member states.

According to the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, the restructurings have so far not been well received.

“Already, three heads of division have resigned and three others have announced their early retirement”, indicates the daily, referring to difficult working conditions, conflicts and a lack of consultation on the part of the hierarchy.

One of those set to leave is longtime WTO communications chief Keith Rockwell, who is due to leave at the end of May, a year and a half before his mandatory retirement.

He told AFP he was leaving “for personal health and family reasons”.

Le Temps reported that the head of the WTO’s trade negotiations committee and its head of human resources were also going there.

The restructuring comes as the WTO faces a host of challenges, from its longstanding inability to strike major trade deals to a broken dispute settlement system and rising trade tensions between the United States. and China.

So far, the WTO has also been unable to reach an agreement on lifting patents on COVID vaccines, with many demanding that the organization show it has a relevant role. to play in the fight against the pandemic.

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