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The World Trade Organization’s “Papal” Conclave
WTO Director General Pascal Lamy at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum. (Photo: Remy Steinegger / World Economic Forum)

The World Trade Organization’s “Papal” Conclave

WTO Director General Pascal Lamy at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum. (Photo: Remy Steinegger / World Economic Forum)

Let’s start today’s trivia quiz with the Rome Papal conclave: Name 2 of the last 3 popes. And, for a bonus question, tell us something about the process by which a new pope is chosen.

And now let’s switch to the Geneva WTO Director General conclave – or more accurately the choosing of the new head of the World Trade Organization: Name 2 of the last 3 WTO heads. Tell us something about the process by which a new Director General of the WTO is chosen. And, wild card question, name even 1 of the 9 candidates vying to be head of the WTO.

If you are like most people I surveyed, you know more about the selection of the pope than that of the WTO head. And, even if you do know some of the WTO candidates, you probably don’t have much of a sense of who, if anyone, might be a better candidate for those of us who care about economic governance that balances social, environmental, and economic issues.

A bit more background before I tell you more about the WTO Nine: A year ago, a number of outsiders had opinions about who should, or should not, be the next World Bank president. Indeed, civil-society groups raised a huge stink about the possible nomination of Larry Summers (he of the women-are-not-equal-to-men and the marginal-cost-of-more-pollution-in-the-South-is-less-than in-the-North infamy), and he didn’t make it to the finalists. (Jim Kim, to remind you, won.)

But, in terms of the WTO, civil-society groups are not much involved, not even to the extent of rallying against the worst candidates.

First, the timetable: The current WTO Director General Pascal Lamy (from France) finishes his second four-year-term at the end of August 2013. Nominations to replace him had to be filed by December 2012, with the name of the next Director General to be announced by the end of May 2013.

How will the winner be selected? Let’s let the WTO explain: “The appointment is made by a consensus decision, of the General Council, which consists of all WTO members…. From

1 April, the General Council Chair…assisted by chairs of the Dispute Settlement body…and the Trade Review Body…will consult all members. Their task is to help members build a consensus…”

It is fascinating to look at the demographics of the candidates. We’ve got three women. Seven contenders are from Latin America, Africa, and East Asia, with 1 from the Middle East (Jordan) and 1 from New Zealand. With a European head at the IMF and a US citizen at the World Bank helm, that doesn’t sound so bad. But before you get too excited, five have been representatives to the WTO.

Are there any “Larry Summers” in the field, people we should be campaigning against? Any proponents of free-trade uber alis? Well, Mexico’s Herminio Blanco (PhD economics, University of Chicago) was a chief negotiator for Mexico on NAFTA — the first trade agreement that included investor-rights clauses that give corporations the right to sue governments. Joining him in that ultra corner, Anabel Gonzalez was Costa Rica’s chief negotiator of the Central American Free Trade Agreement; she proved a powerful free-trade-is-the-answer voice, to the detriment of the strong movement in Costa Rica that argued against signing the accord.

On paper and on first blush, a few look more promising. New Zealand’s Tim Groser, for example, is currently the Minister of Climate Change Issues. But, before one gets too giddy, he has long ties with the WTO and is seen as likely to continue Pascal Lamy’s zealot conviction for agricultural liberalization.

So too does economist Mari Pangestu on the surface appear to have a less-than usual WTO perspective, coming from Indonesia where boom was followed by bust, was followed by IMF bailout. As she explained to the Wall Street Journal, “I understand the complexity of the issues…. A large section of our agriculture is still subsistence farmers so we need to have instruments within the WTO to protect the livelihoods of these farmers.” But don’t read too much into this. At her core, Pangestu is a neoliberal economist who is likely to reflect Indonesia’s interests as a major palm-oil and biofuels player in the global economy.

Perhaps – and I stress perhaps — candidate Amina Mohammed, Kenya’s former ambassador to the WTO, is more promising, given that she has been at UNEP since 2011. However, there’s not enough concrete information provided about her to know exactly what she knows on environmental issues — beyond that she can talk about “green GNP” and “green jobs” and the need for “sustainability.”

Let me be clear: this is not a pitch for either Mohammed or anyone else. Right now, we’re not hearing much from any candidate on these broader issues – be they environmental, social, or economic. Indeed, it appears that the campaign process involves going around the globe and speaking to the World Economic Forum, chambers of commerce, and other business groups. One after another, the candidates are assuring such groups that they will do their utmost to reach out to the private sector and to get the long-deliberated and long-stalled Doha Round done.

And, no, the WTO Nine are not coming to a civil-society group near you. As far as I can tell, nobody on the WTO Nine is currently talking about how to deal with labor or other human rights issues, or how to reconfigure the Committee on Trade and Environment so that it actually offers sage advice on protecting (yes, protecting) the environment (versus the CTE’s current Alice-in-Wonderland focus on making sure that environment does not in any way interfere with the free flow of goods and services).

Back in Rome, the Papal conclave is done. But the Geneva conclave is reaching its critical stage. Whether one wants to fix the WTO or nix it, the moment when a new head is being selected is an important time to try to shed light on this institution. Years ago, Frances Stewart wrote: “Trade should be the servant of development, not its master.” At some point, we are going to have to move to a global governance system where trade is the “servant” of a global economy that works for communities, workers, and the environment. If we’re lucky, we’ll do it sooner rather than later.

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