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  • A Change of Guard
    Thai economist Supachai Panitchpakdi takes the helm of the World Trade Organization, marking the first time someone from a developing nation is leading the institution.
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    GENEVA, Aug. 30 (IPS) - The leadership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is in the hands of a new director-general, this time from a developing country, Thai economist SupachaiPanitchpakdi. The WTO, which is entrusted with overseeing the treaties that regulate the international trade system, has been blamed by anti- globalization activists for they say are the negative consequences of economic liberalization. The arrival of a director-general who comes from the developing South has awakened a whole new set of expectations of the multilateral body.

    The WTO's first director-general was Italy's Renato Ruggiero (1995-1999). The election of his successor turned into a complicated and bitter battle that was ultimately resolved with the Salomon-like division of the term into two three-year periods. Current director-general Mike Moore, of New Zealand, ended the first of the two periods on Sept. 1. Supacha was originally proposed for the post by a large group of countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and he also had the support of some European nations. Moore, meanwhile, was the star candidate put forth by the United States.

    The WTO will continue to be run by the representatives of its 144 member countries, who make key decisions at meetings of the General Council, in Geneva, or at the ministerial conferences which meet periodically -- generally every two years -- in different cities around the world. But the WTO Secretariat, with its staff of 550 and a budget of nearly $100 million for this year - and now with Supachai at the helm - will continue to hold decisive power. Power that is excessive and biased, according to some non- governmental organizations (NGOs) and also several developing countries. Poor nations have protested because the WTO staff mostly come from countries of the industrialized North, and that predominance, they say, is reflected in the institution's orientation towards extreme economic liberalism.

    The Like-Minded Group, made up of developing countries, stated during Moore's tenure that the WTO director-general and the Secretariat should remain "impartial and neutral on the specific issues" that are debated within the organization. Supachai may provide the balance that developing countries are demanding, say observers. The Thai economist stated a year ago that the WTO director-general should be a person who is neutral and capable, and through knowledge and experience able to bring together all points of view.

    Unlike other multilateral bodies that promote the economic globalization process, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the WTO operates under a democratic system in which each of its member states has equal vote. However, several independent observers and some NGOs, like the Britain-based Oxfam, maintain that within the WTO the four major trade powers -- United States, European Union, Japan and Canada -- hold ultimate power.

    One of the concerns of the new WTO director-general is the "declining trend in the terms of trade of most products that are being produced in the poor countries." The international community must find "more innovative solutions to arrest this decline" in terms of trade," he said.

    The new official has said that his intention is to back all projects, of the WTO and other organizations, public or private, aimed at assisting developing countries. The impact of that support will be demonstrated in the results of the negotiations that are already under way in the areas of agriculture, services, patents and public health, and at the next ministerial conference, to take place in Cancún, Mexico, in September 2003.

    Supachai has shown interest in improving the WTO's public image, which has deteriorated as a result of the campaigns launched by groups opposed to certain aspects of the globalization process. The new director believes the institution has a communications problem in its relations with NGOs. "We must be as transparent as possible" with civil society, he has said on several occasions. Supachai has also repeated that he would support WTO enactment of "certain codes of conduct for transnational corporations involved in international trade." Barry Coates, head of the non-governmental World Development Movement, based in Great Britain, says such rules would be "a step in the right direction". But, he stressed, "any code of conduct needs to be binding and fully enforceable, not voluntary."

    Gustavo Capdevila
    September 2002

    Gustavo Capdevila is a correspondent with Inter Press Service, a global news resource faciliating south-south and south-north dialogue on important economic, social, environmental, and other issues. IPS is distributed by Global Information Network

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