Nine candidates vie for top WTO position

Candidates from nine mainly developing nations face off this week for the job of reviving stalled global trade talks as the new head of the World Trade Organization.

Nine candidates vie for top WTO position
France's Pascal Lamy is stepping down as head of the World Trade Organization. Photo: WTO

Six men and three women, many of them current or former government ministers, have thrown their hat into the ring to replace Frenchman Pascal Lamy as head of the WTO.

"It is very good for the organisation to have so many candidates with so much experience and knowledge of the WTO system," agency spokesman Keith Rockwell told the Swiss news agency ATS Monday.

The candidates, the largest number to vie for the top post since the WTO was created in 1995, face the WTO's general council over three days beginning Tuesday as the selection process gets underway.

The director general's main mission is to help advance global trade negotiations that aim to spur growth by opening markets and removing trade barriers, including subsidies, excessive taxes and regulations.

The replacement to Lamy, who finishes his second four-year term in August, will be charged with trying to revive the so-called Doha Round of trade talks.

The Doha Round was launched in 2001 but has since encountered obstacles set in particular by China, the European Union, India and the United States.

Instead the momentum has moved to regional and bilateral trade deals.

As Lamy's second term drew to a close, developing countries said it was time that one of their own get another chance as WTO director general — something that is clearly reflected in the list of candidates put forward before the December 31st cut-off date.

"There is no advance voting in the regional groups (of WTO's 158 member countries), but the principle that the next director general should be from a developing country enjoys broad support," Rockwell told ATS.

According to diplomatic sources, picking a WTO chief could meanwhile be complicated by the fact that another top UN job is opening up this year: to head the organization's trade and development body UNCTAD.

Nations often try to balance representation in international organizations.

The current UNCTAD head, Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand who is preparing to retire, also happens to be Lamy's predecessor at the WTO, where he served a single term.

Since the WTO recently had an Asian chief, diplomatic sources suggest that the top post this time could go to Africa.

That could favour the first candidate to face the WTO's general council on Tuesday: Ghana's former trade minister Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen, who is currently is serving as a trade advisor at the UN Economic Commission for Africa and who is one of two African candidates.

The next candidate up to bat will be Costa Rica's Foreign Trade Minister Anabel Gonzales — one of three candidates from Latin America, another heavily-tipped region — followed by Indonesia's current tourism minister and former trade minister Mari Elka Pangestu.

Then on Wednesday, four candidates will face the music, starting with the only one from a developed economy: New Zealand's trade minister Tim Groser.

He will be followed by high-level United Nations executive Amina Mohamed of Kenya, Jordanian former trade minister Ahmad Thougan Hindawi and finally Herminio Blanco Mendoza of Mexico.

Mendoza is an economist and former minister who led that country's negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as Mexico's participation in the Uruguay round of talks that preceded the creation of the WTO in 1995.

Finally, on Thursday, South Korean Trade Minister Taeho Bark and Brazilian diplomat and envoy to the WTO Roberto Azevedo will go through the tough interview process.

The UN's trade body said Monday that each candidate would be given just 15 minutes to present themselves and their vision for the WTO, before being questioned for an hour and 15 minutes.

After the closed-door interview, each of the candidates will hold a brief news conference.

The WTO's General Council is mandated with selecting the director general by consensus, and candidates that stand little chance of being selected are expected to withdraw on their own.
The decision must be made no later than May 31st and the nominee will pick up the WTO reins on September 1st.

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WTO slashes global growth forecast for 2015

Sluggish economies and global conflicts are taking their toll on world commerce, the Geneva-based World Trade Organization said on Tuesday as it slashed its trade growth outlook for 2015.

WTO slashes global growth forecast for 2015
WTO headquarters in Geneva. Photo: WTO

"For trade growth it is important that you have certain elements present in the global economy (including) stability, predictability, and those things are not there right now," WTO chief Roberto Azevedo told reporters in Geneva.
With economies around the world still struggling to fully recover from the 2008 financial crisis, and with conflicts flaring in places like Ukraine and the Middle East, global trade is expanding far more slowly than anticipated a year ago.
The Ebola outbreak in west Africa, unusually harsh winter weather in the United States and collapsing world oil prices are also taking their toll, as are strong exchange rate fluctuations, Azevedo said.
"All of these things have effects, sometimes destabilising effects," Azevedo said.
On Tuesday, WTO said preliminary estimates showed global trade had expanded just 2.8 percent last year and was expected to swell only 3.3 percent this year.
A year ago, the WTO was singing a different tune.
Last April, it had forecast that trade would expand 4.6 percent in 2014 and 5.8 percent this year.
But it downgraded those predictions in September, to 3.1 percent and four percent respectively, before slashing them further on Tuesday.
"Trade growth has been disappointing in recent years due largely to prolonged sluggish growth in GDP following the financial crisis," Azevedo said.
"Looking forward, we expect trade to continue its slow recovery, but with economic growth still fragile and continued geopolitical tensions, this trend could easily be undermined," he warned.
Last year was the third consecutive year in which trade grew less than three percent, WTO said in a statement.
In fact, trade growth averaged just 2.4 percent between 2012 and 2014 — the slowest rate on record for a three-year period when trade was expanding.
Trade growth is expected to pick up in 2016 with an expansion of four percent, it said, warning though that going forward, trade growth looks set to remain well below the annual average of 5.1 percent seen since 1990.

Slow recovery

"We are cautiously forecasting that trade will continue its slow recovery," Azevedo told reporters.
WTO acknowledged though that "risks to the trade forecasts are mostly on the downside."
Trade is a key measure of the health of the global economy, which it both stimulates and reflects.
But Azevedo warned Tuesday that a systemic shift might be under way and that trade expansion would no longer far outstrip overall economic growth as it has largely done for decades.
"The rough two-to-one relationship that prevailed for many years between world trade growth and world GDP growth appears to have broken down," WTO said.
The organization noted that "the 2.8 percent rise in world trade in 2014 barely exceeded the increase in world GDP for the year, and forecasts for trade growth in 2015 and 2016 only surpass expected output growth by a small margin."
Azevedo said that the 2015 forecast was based on an assumption that global GDP would expand by nearly three percent, while the 2016 forecast depended on economic growth reaching over three percent.
The International Monetary Fund announced later Tuesday that it expects to see global growth at a tepid 3.5 percent this year, and 3.8 percent next year.
WTO meanwhile said developing countries were expected to see exports rise 3.6 percent this year, while their imports were set to jump 3.7 percent.
In developed countries, exports and imports were set to rise just 3.2 percent, it said.
Asia was expected to have the strongest export rise at five percent, followed by North America at 4.5 percent.
The weakest export growth this year is predicted to come in South America with just 0.2 percent.