The 'Divisive' Elections of the WTO Director-General and India's Role as a Developing Power

Updated: May 26

Sathyajith MS,

Junior Research Analyst,

Internationalism Research.

Roberto Azevêdo abdicated from the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organization on 31st August. This has further raised questions about the effective functioning of the multilateral body. Peculiarly, the calendar year 2020 has not just brought economic activities to a standstill but also functioning of the WTO. This resignation comes in the backdrop of the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) coming to a de-facto standstill due to the reluctant intent of American administration to appoint members to the Appellate Body, increasing protectionist tendencies, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The resignation message unequivocally states that the abdication was only to provide sufficient time for the new Director-General to prepare for the Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC 12) which is scheduled in the upcoming year 2021.

Considering the cumbersome process, diplomacy and political interests involved in the selection process, it would not be wrong to state that the timing of the resignation has only added political flavour to the unresolved disputes within the trade body over which the negotiations have been taking place. If one were to view the same as a critique, a leader stepping down when the world economy is in a turmoil is very discouraging. Now, the negotiations between the members are not just limited to trade-related issues. It has expanded to lobbying support for the candidates nominated. In the words of Roberto Azevêdo himself, “The selection process would be a distraction from — or worse, a disruption to — our desired outcomes. We would be spending valuable time on a politically charged process that has proved divisive in the past”.

There could be no disagreement with the statement since the selection process has generally been polarised between the developed nations on the one side and developing nations on the other. This was evident in 2002 when the members had narrowed down to Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi (a former Deputy Prime Minister) and New Zealand’s Mike Moore (a former Prime Minister). While the developing countries rallied behind the candidature of Panitchpakdi, the developed countries supported Moore. If one were to look at the present situation, the two candidates who have made to the final round come from the two blocs. While Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria represents the candidature from the developing countries, Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea represents the other side.

India’s Role in the Multilateral Organization

India has for long portrayed itself to be an impulsive force which represents the developing bloc. In the present situation as well, South Block is likely to rally behind Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala considering the fact that India-Nigeria relations have fostered and expanded over the years. However, this is a tricky situation for the diplomats since there are multiple conflicting interests that India has to balance. Considering the fact that the USA is likely to rally behind the South Korean nominee regardless of who is in power, India needs to delicately handle the situation.

India is already involved in several disputes over agricultural subsidies, sugar subsidies, fishery subsidies etc. The parties who have been on the other side of the dispute involve USA, Canada, EU inter alia which are likely to rally behind Yoo Myung-hee. Apart from this, recently even China has raised concerns over the banning of certain apps by India in the multilateral forum. The multilateral organization is now tangled with divisions which include the US-China trade war and stark differences between the developed countries and developing countries over several issues.

If India decides to rally behind Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, it will be a shot in the arm for the South-South Cooperation and enhancement of India’s relations with Africa, particularly Nigeria. This will also be seen as India standing up for the developing countries and providing them with the support required. However, India’s role is not just limited to providing support to developing countries. With the status quo, it has to play a significant role in bridging the gap between the global North and the global South.

The present situation with the backdrop of the pandemic is certainly not an easy path to tread upon. With calls for increased protectionism and rewiring of the global economy, India surely has to catapult itself as a major player. It would be interesting to see how the present dispensation would handle the situation within the multilateral organization.


Regardless of who becomes the Director-General, resolving the US-China trade conflict, making the DSB fully functional and leading the organization for the MC 12 should be prioritized. Apart from this, providing direction to the multilateral organization amidst the pandemic would require skilful leadership and negot