A new beginning

The election of Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo as the next director-general of the World Trade Organisation may be considered a recognition of the growing role of developing countries in the future of world bodies.

This is true to some extent but it will be wrong to see such a role as decisive. He is not the first from a developing country to head the body but will be the first to hold the position after the emerging countries became a force to reckon with in trade negotiations. Brazil is a member of  the BRICS. The candidate whom Azevedo defeated was from Mexico, also a developing country. But the US and the EU support for the Mexican candidate made Azevedo more acceptable. 

The fact that a person from the South is the head of the world trade body will not make it easier for the developing countries to extract a better deal in trade negotiations. The outgoing chief Pascal Lamy, a French, was considered to have been close to the western countries but he could not help the rich countries to secure a better world trade deal. The director-general is a facilitator and cannot influence the substantive aspect of an agreement which will depend on the bargaining strengths of the countries. Azevedo is a career diplomat and Brazil’s permanent  representative to the WTO for the past five years. He is an insider and has a good knowledge of the working of the organisation.

The challenge for him is to revive the moribund Doha trade round and help the member countries to finalise a world trade agreement. The gaps between the interests and perceptions of the developing and developed countries are well known. But a multilateral agreement is vital for the world. The bilateral and regional trade agreements which have started coming into being show the failure of the world to reach an agreement which serves the interests of all countries. The proliferation of such agreements may serve the limited and immediate needs and interests of countries or groups but a multilateral system is needed to genuinely liberalise trade. If the world cannot frame such an agreement in the next four years of Azevedo’s term, there will not be much hope left for one to be finalized later.  

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