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World Trade Organisation delivers for Africa

World Trade Organisation delivers for Africa

By Lansana Gberie.

In a time of pandemic and war-related doom and gloom, a striking moment of real multilateral triumph must be celebrated. 

In the early hours of 17 June, after several sleepless nights, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the World Trade Organisation’s energetic and resourceful Director General, stood up and told the delegates at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12): “You stepped up and delivered in every area we have been working on.” 

She then listed a package of agreements now known as the Geneva Package — covering among others, a waiver of intellectual property protections to boost countermeasures against COVID-19, a long-illusory agreement on fisheries subsidies, and a decision addressing food insecurity. 

These achievements demonstrated, Dr Okonjo-Iweala said, that the WTO “is, in fact, capable of responding to the emergencies of our time.” 

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

Multilateralism, under attack on multiple fronts, had been given a lifesaving shot in the arm. 

The triumphant outcome at MC12 was anything but anticipated. In fact, on 13 June, a day before the conference opened, Nick Dearden, a columnist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, wrote that delegates arriving for that conference would find the organisation in an “existential crisis.”  

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

Pessimism about the WTO —as about Africa— is nearly always a safe gamble. Only this time pessimism was lost. 

Africa’s Benefits

First, there was an agreement about the definition of fish. It was no mean feat. For the past 21 years since fisheries negotiations were launched at Doha, this was one of the fraught issues. Fish, the agreement now states, “means all species of living marine resources, whether processed or not.” The old canard that it includes “aquatic plants” had been quietly jettisoned, almost without notice.

The agreement on fisheries also includes a curb of around US$22 billion in annual government subsidies to fishers from wealthy countries who ravage African waters. In other words, this agreement, as well as helping to protect the livelihood of millions of small-scale and artisanal fishing communities in Africa and elsewhere, will also help protect ocean health. 

The WTO Director General writes it is the first such pact in WTO history “with a primarily environmental objective at its core.”

This alone would count as a major achievement. 

Intellectual Property Rights Waiver

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

Request for the waiver had been submitted by India and South Africa in October 2010, long before Dr Okonjo-Iweala became Director General. That request triggered a counter proposal from the European Union. Things stalled until she initiated a highly creative process, bringing together India and South Africa (the original proponents), the European Union and the United States (two key rights holders). In five months, the Quad produced an “outcome document” that formed the basis for serious negotiations.

Work on extending the waiver to cover therapeutics and diagnostics, as mandated by the MC12 decision, has already started and has to conclude before the end of December this year. In the meantime, the decision will be celebrated in Africa, particularly in countries with the capacity to manufacture vaccines. 

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

At the moment, four WTO members (US, EU, UK, and Switzerland), all in the global north, produce over 90% of COVID-19 vaccines, and more than 70% of Africans remain unvaccinated. 

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

That she was working on many difficult issues and still overseeing other negotiations, including tackling food insecurity, underlines her depth of commitment to the developing world, especially her continent, Africa.

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 in Switzerland.


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A Guest Contributor is any of a number of experts who contribute articles and columns under their own respective names. They are regarded as authorities in their disciplines, and their work is usually published with limited editing only. They may also contribute to other publications. - Ed.