Presentation by DG Azevêdo

Roberto Azevêdo’s speeches


Let me start by thanking the Chair and members for the opportunity to address you today.

I’d like to thank you for your support over this period, as well as the team here — the Deputy Directors-General, those who support me directly in my office, and the whole Secretariat.

It has been a great honour to serve you all over these last almost four years.

There’s no doubt that these are challenging times for the multilateral trading system. But, in a different way, this was also the case four years ago.

In 2013 it was commonplace to say the WTO was at a ‘critical moment’ or even ‘on the brink’.

There was a tangible sense of crisis back then — and it was very real. We had not delivered any major multilaterally negotiated outcomes since 1995. The credibility of the organization was in the balance.

I recall very well my presentation to you as a candidate for the position of Director-General in January 2013 in this room. I took the opportunity to set out my aims for the role. And I pledged: to strengthen all pillars of the organization; to help you breathe life into our negotiating work; and to hit the ground running.

I think that, with your help, I have delivered on those pledges.

Within 100 days of taking office as Director-General we agreed the Bali package.

That success belongs to you all, and I would like to think that I helped you to make it happen.

The Bali package was a historic moment. It was a first for the organization. And it delivered reforms that will make a real difference — particularly for our poorest members.

Then, just two years later, we did it again.

We delivered a new package of measures in Nairobi — including our biggest agriculture reform. Again, development was at the centre of the package.

And at the same time, some members also struck a deal to expand the Information Technology Agreement, delivering the first major tariff-cutting agreement at the WTO since 1996.

This is, by any measure, a dramatic shift in gears. It is a success story for the organization.

And these breakthroughs were no fluke. They didn’t happen because conditions became favourable all of a sudden. They happened because we worked hard and — crucially — because members were creative, flexible and pragmatic. The stars didn’t align; we aligned the stars. We need to learn from that experience.

In my presentation four years ago I also pledged to bring the DDA to the fore — and that is what we did, though progress was hard to come by.

You will recall the situation back then. The DDA had been stalled since 2008. Engagement had all but ceased. So, after Bali, we tried to get the round moving once again. We stopped avoiding the tough issues. We put them front and centre. We tried fresh approaches. We built trust. And we achieved a huge amount of engagement.

We set parameters for this work: development at the centre; doability; balance; creativity; inclusivity; urgency; and open-mindedness.

Members were talking to each other and putting forward new ideas on many of the key issues. We tried every approach we could think of — particularly during 2015.

We worked hard and faced difficulties openly and honestly.

We did all that, but still we could not bridge the gaps between members’ positions.

Those gaps remain today, and so the work must continue. These issues are critical for a large number of members. We must keep working to take them forward and find ways to bridge those gaps. 

Clearly members have different views on how this should be done, as we saw in the Nairobi declaration. However, all members are committed to pushing these issues forward.

This is something I hear frequently from members. But I also hear about the need for the system to continue to deliver — and to maintain the momentum that we have built up.

The successes of Bali and Nairobi achieved more than the sum of their parts; much more than simply 2 packages or 16 ministerial decisions. 

Besides making a difference to people’s lives and livelihoods across the membership, they also showed that the WTO is a place where you can do business. And they showed that 164 members can work together in a meaningful way to solve the complex problems that they face.

We need to maintain this habit of delivering — we should keep trying to make incremental progress and harvest outcomes wherever and whenever we can.  

Aside from negotiations, progress has also been made in strengthening the other pillars of our work.

The dispute settlement system is in higher demand than ever — and it is performing well.

The system is being used very actively. 98 members have participated as parties or third parties, with equal participation from both developed and developing members. The system has dealt with well over 500 complaints since the WTO was created. And over the last few years we have seen a significant increase in the number and complexity of cases.

When I became DG the system was under significant strain, and we acted quickly to respond to this. We made a series of changes to increase the resources available for this work — within the budgetary parameters set by you.

As a result we got rid of the queue, and we continue to deal effectively with a huge caseload. But that doesn’t mean the situation is sustainable. I have to be frank with you. The system has no spare capacity to respond to any future rise in cases. We must continue finding ways to strengthen this pillar of our work.

The reallocation of resources to the dispute settlement system was carried out as part of a thorough strategic review of the whole Secretariat.

Working within the confines of a zero-growth budget and the cap on personnel, my aim was to respond to members’ concerns in a range of areas, including on the structure of the Secretariat and on some particular processes.

The reforms leading from that exercise are now being put in place, and I think we are on track to make a very significant range of improvements. This will allow us to provide better services to members and better opportunities and working conditions for staff.

The regular work of the WTO bodies continues to grow in importance. For example, the SPS and TBT committees are increasingly active, with members using these forums to raise and solve problems in a practical way and on a rolling basis. This is essential work — and it recalls the original vision for the WTO: a permanent negotiating forum.

In addition to the task of monitoring existing commitments, the committees were also envisioned as standing bodies where members could be engaging, talking and bringing in experts with the idea of helping to advance rules and improve the texts in a pragmatic, incremental manner on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this is something that members should consider encouraging more of in the future.

Our monitoring work has also gained prominence in recent years. We are working to refine and strengthen this effort, including through improvements to the Trade Policy Review process.

The entry into force of the TRIPS amendment and Trade Facilitation Agreement are clear signs that members are implementing the commitments made. We need to see this kind of resolve in implementing all decisions. Nonetheless these recent breakthroughs are very welcome.

The TRIPS amendment languished for 11 years between being agreed in 2005 and coming into force last month.

I queried the status of the amendment when we started discussing ratification procedures for the TFA and I was shocked to realise that this important measure had not been followed through. This was a developing country initiative — mostly an African initiative — that could have tremendous impact on the ground and we needed to deliver it promptly.

That’s why we decided to try to put fresh momentum behind the amendment — and to good effect. Around 37% of the ratifications needed were received in the last 2 years.

Its entry into force last month means that this additional legal certainty around access to medicines is now formally enshrined in the legal texts.

And it is a sign that we’re getting the system working again.

This is underlined by the fact that the process with the Trade Facilitation Agreement was completed in just over 2 years — from the adoption of the protocol of amendment in November 2014 to entry into force, passing the threshold of 110 ratifications last week.

I think this shows an impressive level of energy and commitment among the membership — and this is reflected in the desire of others to join the organization.

We have welcomed five new members since September 2013 — including three LDCs. This is very positive, and many more are working to accede.

But of course that’s only part of the picture. Building a more inclusive trading system means not only expanding the membership — but also supporting our members to get the most out of it.

Progress can only happen with full engagement by members. But the ability to engage is bound up with the question of capacity. I want to do more to empower members so that they feel ownership of the system — this applies to the smallest and least-developed members the most.

Therefore technical assistance and capacity building is increasingly important. The WTO’s founders may not have conceived this as a central element of our work — but it is unquestionably central today. And it is also vital for trade to play its full role in powering development as foreseen in the Sustainable Development Goals.

We are delivering good work in trade-related technical assistance, as the recent independent evaluation showed. WTO initiatives like Aid for Trade, STDF, the TFA Facility, and the EIF, which launched its second phase in 2015, are also bearing fruit. The Aid for Trade Global Review in July will be an important moment.

Needless to say, donors play a fundamental role in making much of this work possible. They have been generous in the past and, as the Organization grows, we will continue to count on their humanism and sense of solidarity.

Partnership with other institutions is also vital in delivering such support. In recent years we have strengthened our links with a wide range of partners, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the various UN agencies — as well as other bodies like APEC, the African Union or the G20. This can be helpful across many areas of our work.

Looking back to where we stood four years ago, I am confident in saying that the WTO is stronger today. We have achieved a great deal together and, looking forward, I think we can achieve much more, in all the areas I’ve outlined today.

This is still a young organization. We haven’t yet realized our full potential.  

And, as a young organization, I think in some ways the WTO is still in transition.

We have moved from the long established GATT model, of a relatively small membership, with a decision-making process that was less than inclusive, to a completely new paradigm. The WTO is now an organization of 164 members, and in some senses I think that the culture and processes of the organization are yet to fully adapt.

We have made significant changes in the last few years, but that progress must continue and accelerate.

We must seek to be ever more open and transparent. We need to find a balance that allows us to move forward more quickly and effectively, but to do so in a way that is truly inclusive — where all voices are heard, and all play their full role in shaping the outcomes that we seek to deliver.

Bali and Nairobi were strikingly different experiences. Neither of them perfect, but both successful. We must learn from those lessons: the good and the bad. There is a lot to learn, for example, from the innovative and flexible approaches that gave us the Trade Facilitation Agreement.

And here I come back to the centrality of technical assistance and capacity building. These elements are surely indispensable to an inclusive, 21st century trading system. I want to explore how we can improve the quality and coordination of our capacity-building support and build on what has been achieved to date.

As we look ahead to MC11, and beyond, I think there is much that we can achieve, on the DDA issues, LDC issues, or on other issues which members want to bring forward.

I want to see us moving further, faster across the board, and particularly in support of the smaller players. I want to continue to do all I can to help — to walk the extra mile for you.

I don’t deny the difficulties we face, the complexities of many issues and the gaps that exist. But we have shown that progress is possible when we are open, inclusive, and pragmatic. 

I began this presentation by saying that these are challenging times for the multilateral trading system.

Global economic growth is low. Trade growth is low. The threat of protectionism cannot be ignored. Multilateralism faces momentous hardships. And we struggle with the persistent challenges of poverty, inequality and under-development.

Many feel excluded from the benefits of trade. It is being connected — wrongly I must note — with structural unemployment.

So how should we respond?

I think we must work harder to ensure that the benefits of trade reach more people, especially in the most vulnerable countries.

We need to work with governments to help them build policies which respond to the many challenges in the economy today — policies which leverage trade as part of the solution. Trade may not be an all-powerful magic potion that will by itself deliver growth, but it is a fundamental and necessary ingredient for any strategy aiming at sustainable social and economic development.

And we need to encourage cooperative efforts at the international level.

It seems to me, in these challenging times, that the value of mutually-agreed global rules is evident, as is the ability to resolve economic problems between nations according to those rules.

These structures were built in direct response to the bloody lessons of history.

They represent the world’s best effort to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

And they provide the tools to deal with many of the problems that are at the forefront of the debate today.

Therefore, in my view, this organization is more important than ever.

We must all work to defend the system. We all have a role to play to safeguard this key element of global economic governance. The role of members is vital here — so too is the role of each individual: ambassadors, permanent representatives, WTO staff… everyone — myself included.

We must not take the multilateral trading system for granted. We must work together to strengthen it further and ensure it is more inclusive, so that the benefits of trade can be spread as far and as wide as possible. So that the system can perform its role, fostering collective and collaborative global efforts to promote better lives and living conditions wherever we can reach.

If members grant me the honour of serving a second term as Director-General that will remain my clear goal. Not to pursue trade for trade’s sake, but as an essential means to support jobs, growth and development. Not to strengthen the WTO for the WTO’s sake, but as a means to ensure that the rule of law is maintained, and that stability and security in global economic relations will long endure. So that the WTO’s work — our work — can continue to foster peace and solidarity among nations.

We have seen challenges in the past, and we have steered the ship through those troubled waters. We should seek now to maintain that relentless, steady, but pragmatic approach in the years ahead.

So thank you all once again for the trust that you’ve placed in me over these almost 4 years.

I hope that I will have the opportunity to continue to work with you in the years ahead.

Thank you.

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