Will the WTO give Rob Davies a shout?

2012-11-03 12:21

SA’s trade minister will first have to cross a political minefield, write Catherine Grant and Peter Draper

The corridors of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, are abuzz with speculation over the race for its soon to be vacant director-general position.

South African trade and industry minister Rob Davies’ name has been thrown into the mix.

Pascal Lamy will end his second term in August next year. The official process to find a replacement will begin next month.

The African Union (AU) has already nominated a candidate – Alan Kyerematen, a former Ghanaian trade minister.

His candidacy was endorsed by the AU executive council in July, but the decision is buried deep in the outcomes of the meeting on page 31 of the council report, and was not widely publicised.

Kyerematen’s candidacy was one of many AU agreements on international positions and it has been suggested the decision did not receive sufficient consideration given its importance.

While it is far too early to make firm predictions, there are some interesting angles to consider in this latest battle for leadership of a major global institution.

There is no official rotation policy for the director-general position, nonetheless it is widely contended it is the turn of a developing-nation candidate.

Previous director-generals have come from Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and Thailand, with the incumbent, Lamy, from France.

It is widely believed it is now the turn of a candidate from either South America or Africa.

The WTO will need a strong hand to guide it and to ensure the organisation remains relevant in a rapidly changing global economy.

The new director-general should therefore be someone with a clear vision that the member states can rally around.

It will not be enough to simply have the right geographical credentials.

There has been no formal indication yet about how South Africa will approach the WTO director-general race, but there is no doubt it will involve having to balance several competing factors.

The AU endorsement of a candidate is the first, especially given that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is now chairperson of the AU Commission.

Having a high-profile South African as head of the AU may mean South Africa is obliged to actively support the candidacy of Kyerematen.

Not doing so would prove difficult, coming hot on the heels of the strongly contested AU Commission chairperson election.

A move by South Africa to field a candidate for the WTO post could be viewed as a hostile move by other African nations.

South Africa is, of course, not only an AU member but is also more recently part of what’s known as the Brics group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

On trade issues there has been some evidence of Brics cooperation.

The five-nation group has, however, so far failed to reach agreement on candidatures for international bodies.

The group missed opportunities to jointly back candidates for the International Monetary Fund managing director and the president of the World Bank.

Davies is well-known for being a tough negotiator not only in the WTO context but also with respect to the US-Southern African Customs Union negotiations and the ongoing talks with the European Union (EU) on an Economic Partnership Agreement.

Given the consensus-based decision-making process in the WTO, it is unlikely any candidate without the full support of the powerful US and EU economies will succeed.

There is also concern among these traditional powers about Davies’ lack of appetite for trade liberalisation and the emphasis he gives to the south-south cooperation (the exchange of resources, technology, and knowledge between developing countries).

It would be naive to consider the WTO director-general race in isolation from other Geneva openings coming up next year.

Supachai Panitchpakdi will end his second term as secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development on August 31 2013.

Davies’ name is also being associated with this position.

It may be a better fit given his passion for development and academic background.

However, it would seem unlikely Africans will get both the WTO and the UN jobs in the same year.

An intra-African clash may thus be unavoidable.

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