WTO's leadership crisis, the UK's consultation list, and USAID's COVID-19 focus countries: This week in development

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Acting USAID Administrator John Barsa talks about the agency’s future plans at the American Enterprise Institute. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

The White House sows doubt over the WTO leadership race, U.K. organizations deny they were consulted about the development and diplomacy merger, and USAID looks for COVID-19 focus countries. This week in development:

The U.S. administration has vetoed other countries’ consensus choice to lead the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, throwing the process to select its next director-general into doubt. On Wednesday, the race had narrowed to two candidates: Okonjo-Iweala, formerly Nigeria’s finance minister and a top World Bank official, and South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. WTO’s selection panel concluded that Okonjo-Iweala was the candidate most likely to secure consensus support from the international body’s 164 members, appearing to set the stage for her appointment. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump rejected that outcome, however, and maintained its support for Yoo. In a statement, the office of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer wrote: “The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.” According to Bloomberg, Lighthizer views Okonjo-Iweala as too closely aligned with internationalists and a potential impediment to his plans to reform international trade regulations. The impasse means that the results of the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3 will be critical for WTO’s future. If Trump retains the presidency, Lighthizer will have renewed leverage over the organization. If Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins, WTO members could look to delay the appointment until he takes office on Jan. 20, in hopes of a more consensus-minded U.S. administration.

The U.K. government has released a list of organizations it says were consulted about the merger of the country’s development and foreign affairs departments. Many of those organizations have denied being part of any meaningful discussion over what such a decision would mean. In response to a Freedom of Information request from Devex, the government provided a list of 28 organizations it says were engaged in consultation. Many of the listed organizations said they were only contacted after the merger was already announced in June, while others said they had discussions with government officials but were not under the impression these were about a potential merger. “We did have meetings with DFID to discuss the global humanitarian response to COVID-19 as well as the impact the pandemic was having on NGOs, particularly smaller community-based organizations, but we did not discuss any potential merger in these meetings,” said Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research at the NGO network Bond. Others shared concerns that discussions held since the announcement of the merger risked amounting to “a box-ticking exercise.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development has outlined recommendations to adapt its programs to a world changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of a strategic exercise called “Over the Horizon,” the agency has sought to analyze the current and projected impacts of the pandemic and translate these findings into an operational response. The recommendations include determining a set of focus countries, where needs due to the pandemic are high and the U.S. has a national security interest. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, acting USAID Administrator John Barsa did not reveal which countries would be on the list but alluded to Central America’s Northern Triangle region and to East Africa. The recommendations also include elevating the role of local staff members, called foreign service nationals, within the agency — a step that has already been taken as many international staffers have left their posts. The agency also plans to create a “strategic foresight unit,” which will aim to anticipate future impacts of COVID-19, as well as other crises and shocks that could disrupt USAID’s programs.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.