Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo, the new leader of WTO.

Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo, the new leader of WTO. Photo: Businessweek.

On May 7th 2013 the World Trade Organization (WTO) appointed Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo as the new director-general. Brazilian Azevedo will be the successor of France´s Pascal Remy who, in September this year, is stepping down after two 4-year periods as head of WTO. Azevedo’s main challenger was the Mexican chief litigator Herminio Blanco, chief architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Given NAFTA’s unpopularity amongst progressives, many organizations such as the Norwegian Church Aid have shown their appreciation of the appointment.

The election of a new leader in WTO basically gives the organization a chance to change direction, modernize and adapt to the current world economy. This is badly needed as WTO is today seen by many as a tool for developed countries to further their interests on the expense of less developed countries. Trade negotiations in the WTO demand further liberalization of developing countries’ markets, which leads to the shrinking of their policy space and prevent them from using trade as a tool in their own development strategy. Developed countries have offered nothing in return for these concessions and continue to subsidise their export production that damage the agricultural production in developing countries.

This has led to a halt in the WTO negotiations which can be said to have greatly weakened the organization. Since Azevedo is from one of the newly economic development countries (BRIC), this is thought to be positive for the future negotiations. Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo is the first Latin-American leader of the WTO. Brazil has experienced a very high growth-rate, making it one of the most important economies for the future, which is probably one of the reasons why he was a top-candidate for the post. As an emerging economy Brazil has along with the other BRICS-countries been able to stand up to the demands from the developed countries. Although the needs of developing countries are diversified and may sometimes conflict, a different perspective than the G7 is badly needed in the WTO.

Brazil’s economic boom has forced Brazilian politicians to face challenges such as building a wealthier society for all the social layers, giving the poorest a higher living standard and social security for all citizens. An inclusive and pro-poor growth has been lacking in the WTO-framework, and possibly this experience can be positive for the developing countries in the future negotiations.

One may only hope that Azevedo is the right person to lead WTO into a change of course that can also benefit the developing countries instead of slowing their growth and keeping them in a standstill. His first real challenge is to restore the Doha Development Round to actually focus on issues that concern the developing countries, and to take into consideration their need and demands, instead of using the round as another excuse for developed countries to further penetrate developing markets. Hopefully after this 4-year period Azevedo will have proven himself as the man who made the WTO better. However one should be careful having too high expectation for Azevedo, since he is relatively unknown to the international press, showing in the way he was elected leader for his “good name and strong character within the WTO.” Importantly we have to remember that WTO is an organization embedded to their goal of full trade liberalization, and if Azevedo is to bring a positive change it is paramount that the developing countries benefit from the trade agreement. Azevedo is most likely neither willing nor capable of challenging WTO’s paradigm or bring about big changes in the organization. Instead Azevedo will likely do his work quietly within the WTO framework. It is therefore up to civil society and concerned citizens to keep an eye on Azevedo and the WTO, holding them accountable to their promise of using trade to create prosperity for all.

Written by Stefan Hvalsø Holm, Handelsutvalget