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OP-ED: Which WTO chief candidate should Bangladesh support?

  • Published at 09:18 pm October 19th, 2020

One candidate appears to be the clear choice

Bangladesh has good reason to want the World Trade Organization to be a successful institution, which helps the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) to grow their economies.

Last year, members of the WTO praised Bangladesh for its strong support and active participation in the multilateral trading system. 

The WTO report said that Bangladesh’s strong economic performance, enabled by prudent macro-economic management, has helped reduce poverty and improve the business environment.

Bangladesh’s mission to the World Trade Organization’s headquarters in Switzerland is led by Ambassador Md Mustafizur Rahman. He now faces an important choice.

Two intelligent, experienced, and impressive women -- South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala -- are in competition to be the WTO’s next leader.

Which one should Bangladesh choose?

Members must reach a consensus on which person should be its next Director General by October 27, 2020. Lobbying is in the final stages and telephone calls are taking place between presidents and prime ministers.

Important choice

Bangladesh’s decision is important, because the successful candidate must win support from countries at all levels of prosperity.

Some Bangladeshis might naturally want to back a fellow Asian for the role. On the other hand, they may think that Bangladesh has more in common with a big, developing nation, such as Nigeria, than it does with a relatively small, rich, and successful country like South Korea.

Yet many Bangladeshis travel to South Korea to work or study. According the Dhaka Tribune, the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has promised to establish a vocational training centre, which could train Bangladeshi workers to suit the needs of Korean employers. She also aims to ease restrictions on migrant labourers, imposed because of Covid-19.

South Korea was one of the most successful countries in controlling the spread of Covid-19. It is keen to share its sophisticated track and trace system with developing countries.

Bangladesh and Nigeria also enjoy a good relationship and recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to establish bilateral consultations to boost their economic and political ties.

Unlike Nigeria, South Korea is an investor in Bangladesh. Last month, ambassador Lee Jang-Keun announced an increase of investment in Bangladesh’s rural areas, infrastructure projects, and garment industries. South Korean companies will be encouraged to move into Bangladesh’s specialized economic zones.

Wealth of experience

The nationalities of the candidates are influential but it is important to consider their professional track records.

Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea’s trade minister, has a deep knowledge of the processes which guide the multilateral trading system, having specialized in that area since the mid-1990s. During that time, South Korea has become one of Asia’s richest nations, largely through trade, matched by patient diplomacy. 

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is more lively and is an impressive communicator. She is also a highly educated economist and a former finance minister. However, she has less in-depth knowledge of trade policy. 

During a webinar organized by Chatham House in July, she brushed off claims that she lacks experience. “Most of all,” she said, “the choice for director general should go beyond technical skills -- you need boldness, courage,” she said. 

Building bridges

Minister Yoo presents herself as a “bridge” candidate, aiming to overcome the divide between the US and China, and also between rich countries and developing nations. 

It is remarkable that she has reached the final two candidates, considering she was initially dismissed as something of an outsider. Now I take the view that she might just win the race, provided she can revive enthusiasm for multilateral cooperation.  

Another area to consider is the fight against the scourge of corruption. South Korea ranked 39th on the global corruption perception index, published by Transparency International in 2019, an improvement of two places since the year before. Nigeria, on the other hand, languished in 146th position. Unfortunately, Bangladesh also has a severe corruption problem it needs to solve.

Critics of Ms Okonjo-Iweala claim that nearly a billion dollars a month went missing from Nigeria’s oil revenues when she was finance minister. “I think it’s a shame she is even being considered for the role of director of the  WTO” Sarah Chayes, author of Thieves of State, a book about corruption, told AFP.

Considered choice

I have tried to weigh things as best I can in my capacity as the editor of a magazine about Asian politics called Asian Affairs. I am impressed by the energy of Ms Okonjo-Iweala and I can understand why Bangladesh seeks to boost its good relationship with Nigeria. 

However, my view is that given her greater experience in the field of international trade, the thoughtful Minister Yoo is the candidate who has the edge.

It also helps that South Korea’s status has risen, alongside its economic development, built on trade. On that basis, I believe that Minister Yoo offers the members of the WTO an opportunity to learn from one of the architects of this impressive progress. She should be a particular inspiration to the women of Asia. 

Of course, it will be down to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Ambassador Navnit to decide which candidate Bangladesh should support. I hope they will base their decision on the strategic best interests of the country. l

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and has reported as a BBC Correspondent from Bangladesh. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.