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What Africa needs from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at WTO

11 February 2021

When Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is confirmed as the first African and first female Director General (DG) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), she will carry the same weight of expectation from Africa that Barack Obama had from the African-American community when he was elected the 44th President of the United States in 2008.

Obama is often criticised for having not done enough for the black community, who had hoped that his rise to the highest office in US politics would translate into social-economic improvements for one of the most disadvantaged racial groups in the world’s wealthiest country. Obama’s reluctance to be drawn into issues of race can be traced back to the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched his presidential campaign:

“There is not a black America, a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There's the United States of America.”

Will Okonjo-Iweala suffer the same fate as Obama? Her main selling points during the hotly contested DG race were the ability to listen to the needs and wants of countries, negotiate tough positions and build a consensus among members states. Given that The Doha Round, which was intended to help Least Developed Countries (LDCs), collapsed due to a lack of consensus, Okonjo-Iweala will likely face an uphill battle if she is to drive an agenda that helps Africa.

At the minimum, an Africa-focused agenda should include the following:

  • Equity in agricultural trade
  • An inclusive Intellectual Property (IP) regime
  • Active participation by Africa in dispute settlements
  • Capacity building for Africans
  • Fast-tracked membership for Algeria, Sudan and Ethiopia

#1 Equity in agriculture trade

As Ongolo reported in September 2020, Africa has the potential to feed the world with 60% of total uncultivated arable land globally available for agriculture. Yet Africa fails to feed itself and has become a net importer of food products. Africa’s share of the global production for key export crops remains low: maize (7%), rice (5%), sugar cane (5%), wheat (4%) and soybeans (1%).

Despite the low market share in global trade, Africa is subjected to the same trade rules as developed countries whose agricultural sectors developed before the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) mandated cuts in tariffs and the reduction of quotas and domestic subsidies. One of the main reasons for low productivity in Africa is the limited use of fertiliser which is expensive and heavily subsidised by many governments.

Equity in agricultural trade
Developed countries have had a head start in building their agricultural sectors using the policies that are no longer available to Africa today

This unfair playing field prompted Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali to call for reform in cotton trade in April 2003. Africa accounts for just 8% of the global output of cotton. It took 12 years and many rounds of discussion for WTO countries to finalise the Cotton Agreements which gave preferential trade arrangements, duty free and quota free access to LDCs for cotton and related products.

Africa does not have the luxury of waiting 12 years to negotiate agreements for every crop. There is an opportunity for the newly created African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat to negotiate wider agricultural sector agreements for the whole continent. The WTO needs to facilitate to make this a reality.

#2 An inclusive Intellectual Property regime

The lack of Intellectual Property (IP) protection is costing Africa billions of dollars! The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which were introduced by WTO in January 1995, inadvertently favours developed countries because it was based on the western definition of knowledge transfer i.e someone or a company owns an idea.

Global IP protocol
Africa needs to address gaps in the application of the Global IP protocol

In an exclusive interview with Ongolo, University of Aberdeen Law lecturer and editor, Dr. Titilayo Adebola, explained that the TRIPS definition of Intellectual Property ignores the concept of traditional knowledge that is prevalent in Africa, otherwise known as an open-source approach to sharing ideas and innovation.

A good example is the nine year-old Kenyan boy called Stephen who invented a hands-free water and sanitiser dispenser in May 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The inventor was interviewed by BBC and his invention shared widely on the internet. Even if Stephen had the good sense to commercialise his low-cost invention, it is likely that the cost and time required to register a patent would have made it a challenge. The TRIPS agreement does not protect Stephen and other inventors who cannot afford to patent their inventions. Nor does it protect Africa from attempts by the likes of Disney to trademark the Swahili expression ‘hakuna matata’.

The Global IP protocol has further disadvantaged LDCs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WTO denied a plea by South Africa and India for a temporary waiver to various aspects of the TRIPS agreement so that all countries could have access to COVID vaccines. These inflexible trade rules will have a huge human toll. Africa needs to figure out how to navigate the IP space as it simultaneous ramps up innovation.

#3 Active participation by Africa in dispute settlements

It is interesting to note that one of Okonjo-Iweala’s key deliverables will be to restore the rules-based dispute settlement system. According to WTO, their dispute system is one of most active in the world and has resolved over 600 disputes. Out of the 600 cases, only two have been brought by an African country. Tunisia has twice complained about the dumping of school textbooks by Morocco. Meanwhile, developed countries like the United States have raised 124 complaints against many countries including Japan (taxes on alcoholic beverages), the EU (hormones in meat products, grains and banana disputes) and India (patent protection for pharmaceutical and agricultural products).

WTO dispute settlement map
WTO dispute settlement map by complainant

Research shows that the reason African countries do not use the disputes settlement system is because they lack technical expertise about how the system works and cannot afford the high cost of engaging international trade law firms. The WTO does provide support via the Advisory Centre in WTO Law however only eight African countries are members. It’s frustrating that African countries have not taken the initiative to use tools at their disposal.

#4 Capacity building for Africans

The WTO has repeatedly expressed its commitment to providing technical assistance to LDCs. In 2017, LDCs accounted for 60% of technical assistance and Africans were called out for being the biggest users of e-learning courses accounting for one-third of participants. E-learnings?!

What Africa needs is to acquire the technical expertise to draft trade rules, negotiation skills to secure favourable trade outcomes and political savviness to play the disputes game. The best way to build these skills is by learning on the job. We need more qualified Africans – and there are plenty – to serve in leadership and technical roles at the WTO, particularly in the areas of agriculture and commodities, trade & environment market access, intellectual property and trade in services and investment.

#5 Unblocking the accession path for Algeria, Sudan and Ethiopia

Three of Africa’s biggest economies are still observers and not full members of WTO: Algeria (process started in 1987), Sudan (started in 1994) and Ethiopia (started in 2003). Algeria is the 10th largest natural gas producer in the world, Sudan accounts for over 70% of the world’s production of acacia gum (used in soft drinks and confectionary production) and Ethiopia has the potential to become an economic powerhouse. If the WTO wants to truly foster global trade, they need a more agile approach to club membership. It should not take decades.

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has made Africa proud with her historic appointment and wish her all the best! We'll be watching...


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