Look Into the Future of the WTO: Illuminate and Implement Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality

The most recent WTO Director-General (DG), Roberto Azevêdo, stepped down on August 31, 2020. Consequently, the new – and the first female – WTO DG will be decided in November 2020. On October 8, 2020, the final two candidates were publicized after two rounds of DG selection process. They are two of the three women candidates (Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee and Kenya’s Amina Mohamed) advanced in the selection. Candidates from Nigeria and South Korea remain to contest in the final round scheduled in late October 2020. This future women leadership appointment is believed and moreover expected to reflect and pivot significances in inclusivity, diversity and equality in the WTO. Discussion on the importance of these measures has taken place in intense and meaningful ways since summer. For example, Maria V. Sokolova, Alisa DiCaprio and Nicole Bivens Collinson have already written a piece titled ‘Is it time for women leaders in international organizations?’. They address four main issues concerning trade tensions, sustainability, inclusion and digitalization in international organizations. In their conclusion, they suggest all nations to consider the role of women leaders and their abilities, considering upcoming challenging issues in international trade and women’s proved ability to handle difficult tasks. Building from this compelling work of Sokolova et al, this blog post is focused on illuminating and implementing inclusivity, diversity and equality by ways of adopting women’s leadership and participation in the WTO’s future.

First of all, inclusivity is described as a priority of the WTO. Since 1947 when the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was established, all DGs of the GATT and its successor, WTO, have been men. During the GATT period, only 5% of the 168 ad hoc panelists were women. Inclusivity of women in the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO improved – approximately 43% of the total number of panels were women. Moreover, 5 of the total 25 Appellate Body members were women. Nevertheless, only 3 women have chaired the Appellate Body.

While this year, women leaders are found to better deal with pandemic crisis, a female leader of the WTO can bring about resilience, positive changes and problem-solve capability in post-COVID times than previous DG. Looking back at the economic crisis in 2008, some academic commentators articulated that if women were leaders in the financial sectors, the crisis could have been prevented. For example, in 2014, Irene van Staveren published ‘The Lehman Sisters Hypothesis’ on Cambridge Journal of Economics. In particular, various studies indicate that it is reasonable to expect differences made by women leaderships in effective decision-making process and clearer communication in complex international and foreign affairs.

On a further point about women’s inclusivity, this blog post suggests WTO member states, including both developed and developing countries, to include more women to participate in international trade law and policy. A bottom-up approach might be effective. This advised approach entails providing opportunities and training to more girls and women to be trade delegates, negotiators, trade lawyers and scholars. Moreover, it helps to re-design curriculum of international trade law in higher education institutions to highlight gender inclusivity and to deepen cooperation between different gender categories. It is also helpful to appoint more women in leading roles in cross-border firms in international trade and associated non-governmental organizations. Furthermore, in WTO member states’ domestic law and policy implementation, this blog post advocates states to offer specific support, such as assisting women candidates to engage in local politics or to work for governments, to develop a more friendly political environment.

Secondly, ethnic diversity is on the agenda of trade promotion in the WTO. Looking at previous appointments of DG of the GATT and WTO, more than half of the previous 9 male leaders are from developed economies, such as Pascal Lamy (2005-2013) from France, Eric Wyndham-White (1948-1968) from the UK, and Mike Moore (1999-2002) from New Zealand. Whether the Nigerian candidate or the South Korean candidate, the new female DG of the WTO will represent developing economies and project a new voice to open an unprecedented chapter in post-pandemic era. This is particularly inspiring and welcome news, since for many years, the WTO has been criticized for its deficiency in promoting the interests of the least developed countries and developing countries in international trade. Moreover, the impact of COVID-19 trade disruptions on women in least developed countries is negative in significant ways. As a result, it is anticipated that the next DG of the WTO, who is from less advanced economies, will be a champion for diversity, respecting ethnicity and developmental issues.

Finally and more importantly, gender equality as enshrined in UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still has to be implemented after strengthening women’s inclusivity and diversity in the WTO and other international organizations. Recently, World Bank and the WTO co-published a report, which assesses the role of international trade to promote gender equality. This blog post emphasizes key and valuable points in this publication. Firstly, the evolving nature of trade produces opportunities for women, and we should create accessible channels for women to make most of these opportunities. The digital economy and the service economy are both remarkable examples since they provide an inclusive growth and gender friendly employment. Secondly, better trade policies will benefit women. We should continue working on breaking down women’s barriers to trade, especially vulnerable women and/or women in least developed countries and developing countries.

To conclude, having an increased number of women to take part in leading and/or participating in international trade is undeniably significant. Appointment of a new female DG of the WTO is a good start and enables us to establish and look into a more inclusive, diverse and equal future.