Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

COVID-19 agricultural fall out — higher prices for many consumers and greater food insecurity

The World Bank’s President David Malpass in a February 1st posting on Voices flagged the challenges for many of the world’s poorest people flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic — higher food prices, greater hunger, more people pushed into extreme poverty. See World Bank blog,COVID crisis is fueling food price rises for world’s poorest, February 1, 2021, https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/covid-crisis-fueling-food-price-rises-worlds-poorest. The post was originally published in the Guardian. The post is copied in its entirety below (emphasis in the original webpost).

“Over the last year, COVID-19 has undone the economic, health and food security of millions, pushing as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty. While the health and economic impacts of the pandemic have been devastating, the rise in hunger has been one of its most tangible symptoms. 

Income losses have translated into less money in people’s pockets to buy food while market and supply disruptions due to movement restrictions have created local shortages and higher prices, especially for perishable food.  This reduced access to nutritious food will have negative impacts on the health and cognitive development of COVID-era children for years to come.

“Global food prices, as measured by a World Bank food price index, rose 14% last year. Phone surveys conducted periodically by the World Bank in 45 countries show significant percentages of people running out of food or reducing their consumption. With the situation increasingly dire, the international community can take three key actions in 2021 to increase food security and help prevent a larger toll on human capital.

“The first priority is enabling the free flow of food. To avoid artificial shortages and price spikes, food and other essential goods must flow as freely as possible across borders.  Early in the pandemic, when perceived shortages and panic generated threats of export bans, the international community helped keep food trade flows open. Credible and transparent information about the state of global food inventories – which were at comfortable levels pre-COVID – along with unequivocal free-trade statements from the G20, World Trade Organization, and regional cooperation bodies helped reassure traders, and led to helpful policy responses. Special rules for agriculture, food workers and transport corridors restored supply chains that had been briefly disrupted within countries.

“We need to remain vigilant and avoid backsliding into export restrictions and hardened borders that make food – and other essentials – scarce or more costly.

“The second priority is bolstering social safety nets. Short-term social safety nets offer a vital cushion for families hit by the health and economic crises. In Ethiopia, for example, households that experienced problems in satisfying their food needs initially increased by 11.7 percentage points during the pandemic, but participants in our long-running Productive Safety Net program were shielded from most of the negative effects.

“The world has mounted an unprecedented social protection response to COVID-19. Cash transfers are now reaching 1.1 billion people, and innovative delivery mechanisms are rapidly identifying and reaching new groups, such as informal urban workers. But ‘large scale’ is not synonymous with ‘adequate’. In a review of COVID-19 social response programs, cash transfer programs were found to be:

“–Short-term in their duration – lasting just over three months on average

“–Small in value – an average of $6 (£4.30) per capita in low-income countries

“–Limited in scope – with many in need remaining uncovered

“The pandemic has reinforced the vital imperative of increasing the world’s investments in social protection systems. Additional measures to expedite cash transfers, particularly via digital means, would also play an important role in reducing malnutrition.

“The third priority is enhancing prevention and preparedness. The world’s food systems endured numerous shocks in 2020, from economic impacts on producers and consumers to desert locust swarms and erratic weather.  All indicators suggest that this may be the new normal. The ecosystems we rely on for water, air and food supply are under threat. Zoonotic diseases are on the rise owing to growing demographic and economic pressures on land, animals and wildlife.

“A warming planet is contributing to costlier and more frequent extreme weather events. And as people pack into low-quality housing in urban slums or vulnerable coastal areas, more are living in the path of disease and climate disaster.

“Development gains can be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Our experience with hurricanes or seismic events shows that it is more effective to invest in prevention, before a catastrophe strikes. That’s why countries need adaptive social protection programs – programs that are connected to food security early warning systems and can be scaled up in anticipation of shocks.

“The time is long overdue to shift to practices that safeguard and increase food and nutrition security in ways that will endure. The to-do list is long and urgent. We need sustained financing for approaches that prioritize human, animal and planetary health; restore landscapes and diversify crops to improve nutrition; reduce food loss and waste; strengthen agricultural value chains to create jobs and recover lost incomes; and deploy effective climate-smart agriculture techniques on a much greater scale.

“The World Bank Group and partners are ready to help countries reform their agriculture and food policies and redeploy public finance to foster a green, inclusive, and resilient recovery.

Focusing on food security would address a basic injustice: almost one in 10 people live in chronic hunger in an age of food waste and plenty.  This focus would also strengthen our collective ability to weather the next storm, flood, drought, or pandemic – with safe and nutritious food for all.”

Food insecurity is an issue for all countries although most pressing for the poorest countries

The challenges noted by the World Bank President also face most other countries. For example, in the United States, there has been a massive increase in the number of people getting food from food banks and estimates are that one in seven Americans needs food assistance. Feeding America, The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity, October 2020, https://www.feedingamerica.org/research/coronavirus-hunger-research (“Combining analyses at the national, state, county, and congressional district levels, we show how the number of people who are food insecure in 2020 could rise to more than 50 million, including 17 million children.”) The challenges for schools not being able to have in school education has complicated the challenge in the United States as millions of children receive food from their schools but need alternative sources when schools are not able to provide in school classes. See, e.g., Brookings Institution, Hungry at Thanksgiving: A Fall 2020 update on food insecurity in the U.S., November 23, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/11/23/hungry-at-thanksgiving-a-fall-2020-update-on-food-insecurity-in-the-u-s/ (reviews the increase in food insecurity and the various safety net programs in the U.S. attempting to address).

World Trade Organization involvement in addressing the problem

The World Trade Organization is directly involved in addressing the first priority identified by World Bank President Malpass — enabling the free flow of food. However, the WTO also monitors government support efforts and has the ability to be tackling trade and environment issues which could affect the third priority by reducing climate change.

WTO Members under WTO rules can impose export restraints under certain circumstances and in the first half of 2020, a number of members imposed export restraints on particular agricultural products and many imposed export restraints on certain medical goods. At the same time, the lockdown of countries had significant effects on the movement of goods and people. Many WTO Members have urged limiting such restraints and the WTO Secretariat has monitored both restraints imposed, when such restraints have been lifted (if they have), and trade liberalization efforts to speed the movement of important goods. See, e.g., WTO, COVID-19 and world trade, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm; WTO, COVID-19 AND AGRICULTURE: A STORY OF RESILIENCE, INFORMATION NOTE, 26 August 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/agric_report_e.pdf; WTO, COVID-19: Measures affecting trade in goods, updated as of 1 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm. The August paper on COVIDE-19 and Agriculture is embedded below.

agric_report_e

There have been a number of proposals by certain WTO Members to forego export restraints on agricultural products during the pandemic. None have been acted upon by the membership as a whole, but the communications often reflect commitments of certain Members to keep agricultural markets open during the pandemic. See, e.g., RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS, STATEMENT FROM: AUSTRALIA; BRAZIL; CANADA; CHILE; COLOMBIA; COSTA RICA; ECUADOR; EUROPEAN UNION; GEORGIA; HONG KONG, CHINA; JAPAN; REPUBLIC OF KOREA; MALAWI; MALAYSIA; MEXICO; NEW ZEALAND; NICARAGUA; PARAGUAY; PERU; QATAR; KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA; SINGAPORE; SWITZERLAND; THE SEPARATE CUSTOMS TERRITORY OF TAIWAN, PENGHU, KINMEN AND MATSU; UKRAINE; UNITED ARAB EMIRATES; UNITED KINGDOM; UNITED STATES; AND URUGUAY, WT/GC/208/Rev.2, G/AG/30/Rev.2, 29 May 2020. The document is embedded below.

208R2-3

More can and should be done, including a WTO-wide agreement to forego agricultural export restraints during the current pandemic or future pandemics. However, there are strong objections to any such limits from a number of WTO Members including large and important countries like China, India and South Africa.

Indeed, efforts to get agreement at the December 2020 General Council meeting that countries would not block agricultural exports to the UN’s World Food Programme for humanitarian purposes was blocked by a number of countries. While 79 WTO Members in January 2021 provided a joint pledge not to prevent agricultural exports to the UN World Food Programme, it is a sign of the sensitivity of food security to many countries that a very limited humanitarian proposal could not obtain the agreement of all WTO Members in a period of hightened need by many of the world’s poorest countries. See January 23, 2021, WTO and the World Food Programme – action by 79 Members after a failed December effort at the General Council, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/23/wto-and-the-world-food-programme-action-by-79-members-after-a-failed-december-effort-at-the-general-council/.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has extracted a huge cost from the world economy, has pushed tens of millions of people into extreme poverty, has cost hundreds of millions people employment (full or partial), is complicating the education of the world’s children with likely long lasting effects, has exposed potential challenges to achieving global cooperation on a range of matters including the desirability of limiting or not imposing export restraints on agricultural and medical goods.

While the focus of countries and the media in the last several months has shifted to access to vaccines and ensuring greater equitable distribution of such vaccines at affordable prices, there remains much that needs to be done to better address food insecurity during the pandemic. International organizations like the World Bank, IMF and WTO, countries, businesses and NGOs need to se that both core issues are addressed in the coming months.


WTO Director-General Selection Process — Next Steps

With the current WTO Director-General, Robert Azevedo, stepping down at the end of August, the WTO is a little more than one month into the selection process for a new Director-General. The process is envisioned normally to take nine months of which six months deal with nominations, candidate outreach to WTO Members, and consultations by the WTO’s Chair of the General Council (with the assistance of the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body) with WTO Members to find a candidate for whom consensus is possible and a General Council meeting to confirm the selection of a new Director-General. Because of the approaching departure of the current Director-General, the WTO is examining whether the process of selecting a new Director-General (“DG”) can be accelerated. To the extent the process is not concluded before DG Azevedo departs, the WTO will select an acting Director-General from among the four Deputy Directors-General.

Phase 1, Nominations

Phase 1 of the WTO Director-General selection process came to an end on July 8, one month after the process started on June 8 as the window for WTO Members to nominate candidates from their country/territory came to an end at the close of business on July 8th. Eight WTO Members provided nominations to the WTO. The Member and candidate in the order of nomination at the WTO are reviewed below along with the date that the WTO posted a press release on the nomination (with official bio submitted).

The Chair of the General Council released a consolidated list of candidates whose nominations had been received by the WTO on July 9, embedded below. WT/GC/INF/30.

WTGCINF30

Phase 2, Candidates Making Themselves Known to the WTO Members

After the close of the nomination window, normal procedures provide three months for candidates to “make themselves known to Members”. This phase 2 of the selection process starts with a WTO General Council meeting at which each candidate is given time to make an opening statement and for Members to ask questions and receive answers. The General Council meeting is followed and preceded by candidates and their nominating governments doing outreach to WTO Members in Geneva and in capitals around the world.

A. General Council meeting

In the 2012-2013 selection process, the General Council meeting took three days and occurred 29-31 days after the close of the nomination phase. Each candidate had 15 minutes for an opening statement followed by 75 minutes of questions and answers with the last five minutes of the 75 minutes reserved to the candidate to make a summing up if desired. Members wishing to ask a question notified the WTO in advance for each candidate for which they wished to be considered to ask a question and their names were included in a box from which names were drawn. Questions were limited to one minute maximum, with no follow-up questions allowed. Each candidate was offered the opportunity to meet with the media immediately after the meeting with the General Council.

In the current selection process, the WTO is proceeding in the same manner with the same time allocations and same opportunity to meet press, though the timing of the General Council meeting has been moved up as part of a process to expedite the overall selection process. The General Council will meet 7-9 days after the close of the nominating period, the meetings being over three days, July 15-17.

On Friday, the specific schedule was announced. Candidates are heard in the order in which their nominations were received by the WTO. Below is the schedule of meetings for candidates with the General Council (each meeting is 90 minutes) followed by a press conference, assumed to occur within 15 minutes of the close of the meeting with the General Council. The press conferences will be webcast live on the WTO website and will be archieved, as they were in 2013.

CandidateDate at GCTimePress Conference
Dr. Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico)July 1511:15 13:00 (est.)
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)July 1515:0016.45 (est.)
Mr. Abdel-Hamid Mumdouh (Egypt)July 1516:3018:15 (est.)
Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi (Rep. of Moldova)July 1611:0012:45 (est.)
H.E. Yoo Myung-ee (Rep. of Korea) July 1615:0016:45 (est.)
Amb. Amina C. Mohamed (Rep. of Kenya)July 1616:3018:15 (est.)
Mr. Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)July 1710:0011:45 (est.)
Dr. Liam Fox (United Kingdom)July 1711:3013:15 (est.)

B. Length of period of outreach by candidates

The Chair of the WTO’s General Council on the 10th of July announced that Members had agreed to truncate the phase 2 outreach by candidates from three months to two months, ending September 7. See General Council Chair Walker announces timelines for next stages of DG selection process, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_10jul20_e.htm.

Phase 3, Consultations with WTO Members on Candidate Best Placed to Attract Consensus

The final phase of the selection process is one in which the WTO’s Chair of the General Council along with the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body consult with all WTO Members “to assess preferences and seek to determine which candidate is best placed to attract consensus support.” Id. This phase is to be completed within two months with a General Council meeting to consider and (hopefully) adopt the recommendation of the candidate put forward by the General Council Chair (by November 7 in the current selection process).

In 2013, when there were nine candidates, the consultation process involved three rounds of consultations, with those candidates with the least likelihood of generating consensus being asked to withdraw after each round so a recommendation could be made.

With eight candidates in the current selection process, multiple rounds of consultations will almost certainly be needed. It is unlikely that the process will be completed significantly in advance of the two month deadline.

The procedures adopted in 2002 provide for the option, if needed, to go to voting, though that is a last resort and has not been used to date.

Hopefully, resolution of the selection of the next Director-General will happen by early November. While the procedures for selection envision a three month period after selection before the new Director-General assumes his/her position at the WTO, the three months is premised on there being a Director-General whose term ends in three months. In the current situation where the Director-General departs at the end of August, the new Director-General will presumably take office immediately and General Council adoption of his/her nomination.

Need for an Acting Director-General for the Period September 1 – early November

According to the Procedures for the Appointment of Directors-General adopted by the General Council on 10 December 2002 (WT/L/509, para. 23),

“In the event of a vacancy in the post of Director-General, the General Council shall designate one of the existing Deputy Directors-General to serve as Acting Director-General until the appointment of a new Director-General.”

As this post is being written, there are just 51 days until there is a vacancy in the post of Director-General. Since the timing for completion of the selection process will run several months past the departure of Director-General Azevedo, the General Council has in front of it the additional need to designate one of the existing Deputy Directors-General to serve as the Acting Director-General.

The four existing Deputy Directors-General are Yonov Frederick Agah (Nigeria), Karl Brauner (Germany), Alan Wm. Wolff (United States) and Yi Xiaozhun. Information on the four Deputy Directors-General is contained in various WTO website listings. See The Deputy Directors-General, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/dg_e/ddg_ra_e.htm; Understanding the WTO The Organization, the Secretariat, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/tif_e/org4_e.htm#agah. Embedded below is the page on the Deputy Directors-General.

WTO-_-Deputy-Directors-General

While the 2002 procedures for designating an acting Director-General have not been used before now, it is understood that the Chair of the General Council is consulting with Members now on the issue and will likly include the topic in the agenda for the General Council meeting scheduled for July 22-23. Selection of an acting Director-General is presumably done by consensus as well.

While the role of an acting Director-General is understood to be largely administrative (being available to pay bills, manage Secretariat issues, keep the organization functioning while awaiting the completion of the selection process) and even though Deputy Directors-General act independent of their national origin, it is unclear how political considerations will be at play in the designation of an acting Director-General. For example, with three candidates from African countries for the post of Director-General (including one from Nigeria) would the designation of Yonov Frederic Agah (a Nigerian) as acting Director-General be viewed as harmful or helpful to the chances of the one or more of the African candidates since an African would be serving in the acting position? Similarly, with the differences in views of the WTO’s path forward between the U.S., China and Europe, will one ore more of the three other Deputy Directors-General be viewed as unacceptable to one or more of the majors? If there are political complications affecting the designation of an acting Director-General, what spillover effects will such tensions on the acting designation have in achieving a smooth resolution on the selection process of a new Director-General? We will likely find out whether the designation process is smooth or complicated in the next several weeks.

Conclusion

The selection process for the next WTO Director-General is in a very active stage. The Chair of the General Council has worked with the WTO Members to expedite the process to the extent acceptable to Members. Such expedition will result in at least one month cut off of the six month period from the start of nominations to the selection of a new Director-General, with resolution due by November 7 at the latest.

All of the eight candidates will be in Geneva next week for their meetings with the General Council during July 15-17. There is a shortened period for candidates to do outreach to WTO members so the rest of July, all of August and the first week of September will be hectic for the candidates and their governments with some in person meetings and many virtual meetings during this time.

When Phase 3 kicks in in early September, the General Council’s Chair along with the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body will be involved in the time-consuming task of consultations with Members as they work to find a consensus candidate for the Director-General post. In 2013, those efforts took three rounds of consultations to go from nine candidates to one who was recommended to the General Council and accepted by consensus. It is assumed this year, the challenges will be comparable and will likely take three rounds (8 candidates to 4 to 2 to recommendation may be the path consultations take).

Because the current Director-General, Roberto Azevedo, will be stepping down on August 31, the WTO, for the first time since the General Council adopted procedures for selecting new Directors-General at the end of 2002, will need to designate an acting Director-General from the four existing Deputy Directors-General. While the designation process may prove to be uneventful, in a time of significant dysfunction within the WTO because of dramatically different views of the operation of the WTO and reform needs by many Members, there is at least the chance for the designation process to become complicated and to make more difficult the ability to reach consensus on a new Director-General.

Considering the severe challenges facing the WTO and the complications flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic, selecting a strong Director-General in a process that flows without major incident is an important hoped-for outcome in the remainder of 2020.