Geneva, Switzerland—The World Trade Organization was to launch an internal shake-up on Tuesday in a bid to inject some life into an institution where progress has all but ground to a halt.
Almost a year since taking charge at the WTO, director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was set to announce to its headquarters a plan to restructure the secretariat, which has hardly changed since the global trade body was created in 1995.
The Nigerian former finance and foreign minister—the WTO’s first woman and first African leader—wants to revitalize the organization, which is struggling to conclude trade deals and facing several towering challenges.
“Like all of her predecessors as director-general, Dr Ngozi took office promising to update the secretariat’s structure and operations,” a WTO official told AFP, adding that the global trading environment was now drastically different from the mid-1990s.
“She is moving ahead with that promise she made to members.”
Part of Tuesday’s meeting “was about briefing colleagues about what is happening with this process, and plans for the next few months”, the official said.
The WTO headquarters, a classical-style 1920s building next to Lake Geneva, counts 625 staff—mainly economists, lawyers, and other international trade policy specialists.
As decisions in the WTO are taken in consensus by its 164 members, the secretariat’s main tasks are to provide advice, technical help to developing countries, and legal assistance in the dispute resolution process.
After taking office in March 2021, Okonjo-Iweala commissioned management consultants McKinsey to perform an external audit on how the secretariat works, and provide guidance on the changes needed.
It meanwhile remains unclear what specific observations and recommendations were made in the report, which has not been published or even provided to member states.
According to the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, the restructuring moves so far have not gone down well.
“Already, three heads of division have resigned and three others have announced their early retirement,” the daily said, citing difficult working conditions, conflicts, and a lack of consultation by the hierarchy.
One of those on the way out is the WTO’s long-standing communications chief Keith Rockwell, who is due to leave at the end of May—a year-and-a-half ahead of his mandatory retirement.
He told AFP he was leaving “for personal reasons related to health and family.”
Le Temps reported that the head of WTO’s trade negotiations committee and its human resources chief were also going.
The restructuring comes as the WTO faces a host of challenges, from its long-time inability to conclude major trade deals to a broken dispute settlement system and rising trade tensions between the United States and China.
The WTO has also so far been unable to reach a deal on the lifting of COVID vaccine patents, called for by many demanding that the organization shows it has a relevant role to play in combatting the pandemic.