Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo’s election as head of the World Trade Organization is a long overdue step towards global perestroika but his task of creating a fair, international economic order is not going to be easy
On Tuesday May 7, in Geneva, the World Trade Organization (WTO) received a new leader, Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil. The election of Azevêdo is significant not because he is the first person from the Global South to lead the WTO — that honour goes to Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi, who ran it from 2002 to 2005. But unlike Supachai, Azevêdo comes with the backing of significant new blocs of the Global South, notably the BRICS grouping which put its heft behind his candidacy. This is the first time that a candidate of the Global South won against someone backed by the European Union, which in this instance had put its support behind Mexico’s former Trade Minister Herminio Blanco. The BRICS bloc was able to secure sufficient investment in Azevêdo, Brazil’s representative to the WTO since 1997.
Azevêdo is a veteran of Brazil’s Itamaraty, its foreign ministry. A career diplomat, he spent the most mature part of his working life at the WTO where he earned a reputation as being a defender of the Global South against the North’s very focused attempt to use the WTO as an instrument of its interests. France’s Pascal Lamy led the WTO into the doldrums, as the Doha Development Agenda stalled because of Northern obduracy on its agricultural subsidy regime and Southern reticence to adopt the strict intellectual property framework favoured by the North. No wonder that Azevêdo said last week that the WTO is a “sick patient.” The next leader, he said, “has to put on the gloves, the masks and start operating immediately because the patient is almost terminal.”
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff said that Azevêdo would work to create a “more dynamic and fair” world economic order. Azevêdo has pledged to work for all countries, but he also said that “members in general are more trusting of a system where they think they can be represented at the top, in terms of geography and level of development.” In the halls of the WTO, Azevêdo is known as a fair-minded person who has indeed played a very positive role to defend the rights of the South against the heavy-handed positions taken by the North. Multilateralism, he says, is in his DNA. If the backing of the BRICS continues, and if Azevêdo is able to move in a multilateral way, a positive agenda might finally emerge from the WTO.
Azevêdo’s election is an instance of “global perestroika,” the term employed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 1988 when he was the Secretary General of the South Commission. In the context of the Third World debt crisis, Dr. Singh told a press conference in Geneva, “This is the harsh reality, and unless you organize publicly, unless the collective views of the Third World can be articulated in meaningful dialogue, no amount of mere technical solutions will solve the problem of debt.” Taking the point further, Dr. Singh said, “What we in the Third World need is global perestroika, restructuring of international economic relations which would take into account the legitimate aspirations of the four-fifths of humanity that lives in the Third World, for better life for their peoples.”
One emblem of global perestroika has been the election of the heads of important international bodies. The battlefield over their new heads is not trivial, but is a show of strength between an emergent South and a calcified North. It is a small part of global perestroika. During the low-point of the 2007-08 financial crisis, the managers of the North Atlantic states hastened in search of the surpluses of the South. They made promises towards global perestroika in exchange for new emoluments of Chinese and Indian money to safeguard their states that had been badly mauled by the financial mayhem. As the lights began to come back at the stock markets, all promises of perestroika vanished. The grave worries about “irresponsible manipulation” returned, with the North eager to insulate its banking sector from Southern reformers. There was to be no Structural Adjustment in the North, and little acknowledgment of the new Southern power.
When the IMF elected its new head in 2011, the countries of the South failed to come to a consensus on any candidate, opening the door for France’s Christine Lagarde. She was quite comfortable when the U.S. blocked any attempt at “governance reform” (opening the doors to more Southern power in the IMF). It is clear that her inclinations are far more towards the banking sector in the North than to the broader question of development that excises many of the Southern countries.
Later this year, Supachai will step down from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a crucial “think tank” that has begun to explore at length the corruptions of finance. On the eve of the last UNCTAD conference, Supachai noted, “Finance should not be the master of development. Whether it be slave of development is something else, but finance should serve development.” In the current context, this inversion is a radical act and deeply controversial. At that UNCTAD conference, the North had attempted to narrow UNCTAD’s mandate so that it would not be able to study questions of financial and banking reform. Again the assertion of the BRICS, mainly China, held them off. There is as yet no common BRICS-Southern candidate for the UNCTAD. The WTO election suggests that the tide has turned. With UNCTAD we shall see if it is still coming in or if it has been washed away.
The world pays a stiff price for the North’s monopoly over political and economic decisions. Global perestroika is needed. The recent issue of the U.N.’s Human Development Report 2013 is called The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. The authors of this report note that it would be a good idea to “establish a new South Commission to bring a fresh vision of how the South’s diversity can be a force for solidarity.” Dr. Singh’s 1988 call for policies that affirm the “legitimate aspirations of the four fifths of humanity” when he was then head of the South Commission is once more on the table — to set a new agenda for world affairs. Azevêdo’s election sends a signal that the South might indeed have arrived. But having arrived, what will the South do?
(Vijay Prashad’s The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South is just out from LeftWord.)