A record nine candidates are vying to replace Frenchman Pascal Lamy who finishes his second four-year term in August.
The biggest challenge for the WTO, which oversees global trade practices and is trying to reduce tariffs that hobble exchanges, is how to jumpstart the stalled Doha Round of trade talks that was launched in 2001.
The only candidates from an advanced economy, New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser, was the first to face the tough, closed-door interview process Wednesday.
“My view is that the WTO is not in a state of crisis. It faces a deeper, slower-moving problem of relevance,” Groser told reporters afterwards, adding that the body’s next head needed to be “deeply articulate” and “persuasive.”
Groser is considered well-suited for the job, but observers feel he is a longshot since the UN’s trade body appears set on picking someone from a developing nation.
The New Zealander tackled the issue head on, acknowledging that if the choice of the next WTO director general is “just a foreign policy issue … then I’m not the answer.”
Groser was followed by high-level United Nations executive Amina Mohamed of Kenya, one of three women vying for the job and one of two candidates from Africa — a region thought likely to provide the organisation’s next leader.
“I believe that I am uniquely qualified, by training, by experience and a track-record of delivery,” said Mohamed, a lawyer who is currently the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN and who served as Kenya’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva from 2000 to 2006.
While insisting that her candidacy was purely based on merit, Mohamed acknowledged that “it would send a very, very powerful signal … if this organisation decided that a woman, preferably an African woman, should take over at the helm of the WTO.”
Former Jordanian trade minister Ahmad Thougan Hindawi, the only Middle Eastern candidate, was next, insisting he would bring “a fresh outside look” and “innovative (and) out-of-the-box thinking” to the WTO.
Herminio Blanco Mendoza of Mexico, one of three candidates from Latin America, another strongly tipped region, vaunted his long experience in the private sector.
“The fact that I have been in the private sector as a user of the free trade agreement … gives me a different vantage point,” he said, insisting that “whatever is negotiated here in Geneva must reflect realities” in the business world.
Mendoza, an economist and former minister who led Mexico’s negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement, echoed Groser’s claim that the WTO risked “losing relevance” if the next Doha-round talks in Bali at the end of the year failed.
Three candidates have already made their case, Ghana’s former trade minister Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen, Costa Rica’s Foreign Trade Minister Anabel Gonzalez and Indonesia’s current tourism minister and former trade minister Mari Elka Pangestu.
Pangestu, who might have less of a chance given that Lamy’s predecessor Supachai Panitchpakdi comes from neighbouring Thailand, told media she was “a tough negotiator,” and also argued that the WTO would be well-served by having a woman at the top.
South Korean Trade Minister Taeho Bark and Brazil’s WTO envoy Roberto Azevedo are to present their credentials on Thursday.
The WTO’s General Council is mandated with selecting the director general by consensus, and candidates who stand little chance of being selected are expected to withdraw of their own volition.
The decision must be made no later than May 31, and the nominee is to take over at the WTO on September 1.