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WTO chief warns of global economy split

Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-IWeala, Head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), on the occasion of the annual presentation of international trade prospects, at the organization's headquarters in Geneva, on April 12, 2022
Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-IWeala, head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), on the occasion of the annual presentation of international trade prospects, at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, on April 12, 2022 (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The head of the World Trade Organization warned on Tuesday of a split of the global economy into rival blocs during the war in Ukraine, and called on countries not to restrict trade in times of crisis.

“The war in Ukraine has caused immense human suffering, but it has also damaged the global economy at a critical time,” said Ms Ngozi Okonjo-IWeala, at the annual presentation of the international trade outlook.

“History tells us that dividing the world economy into rival blocs and turning its back on the poorest countries will lead to neither prosperity nor peace,” she said.

With little hard data on the economic impact of the conflict, WTO economists had to rely on simulations to make “reasonable assumptions” about GDP growth in 2022 and 2023.

According to these simulations, global GDP is expected to grow by 2.8% in 2022, after increasing by 5.7% in 2021. Output growth is expected to reach 3.2% in 2023, based on geopolitical and economic uncertainty.

Influenced, largely by the war in Ukraine, the volume of world trade in goods is expected to grow by 3% in 2022 – while the WTO forecast an increase of 4.7% in October – and by 34% in 2023, but these figures could be revised depending on the evolution of the conflict.

Robert Koopman, chief economist at the World Trade Organization (WTO), on the occasion of the annual presentation of international trade prospects, at the organization's headquarters in Geneva, April 12, 2022
Robert Koopman, chief economist at the World Trade Organization (WTO), on the occasion of the annual presentation of the outlook for international trade, at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, on April 12, 2022 (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The WTO clarified that GDP forecasts had already fallen in Ukraine before the war.

The variant “Omicron that continues to expand” and disrupts the exchange of goods, “inflation that reduces purchasing power, more restrictive fiscal policies and a rise in interest rates” are all factors that are already weighing, said Robert Koopman, chief economist at the WTO.

“Inclusions in China”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 not only created an immense humanitarian crisis, but also shocked the global economy, which had already been greatly destabilized by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO), in Geneva, on April 12, 2022
Entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO), in Geneva, on April 12, 2022 (Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP)

Despite their small share of world trade and manufacturing, Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of essential products such as food, energy and fertilizers, the supply of which is now threatened by war. The supply of grains through the ports on the Black Sea has already been stopped, which could have disastrous consequences for food security in poor countries.

“Lower supply and higher food prices could mean that the world’s poor people have to do without it. We cannot allow this. Now is not the time to turn inward,” the WTO head underlined.

The WTO is also concerned about the outbreak of Covid-19 in China.

“Lockdowns in China, designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, are disrupting maritime trade again, at a time when supply chain pressures appeared to be easing,” which could lead to “new shortages of manufacturing inputs and higher inflation,” the organization said.

In a preliminary analysis, the WTO had already warned that the conflict in Ukraine could wipe out half of the projected growth in world trade by 2022, or even in the long term, leading to a “disintegration of the global economy into separate blocs”. which are organized according to geopolitical considerations.

This scenario of so-called “decoupling” of the economy on a global scale, according to the WTO, would be “very costly”, especially for the less developed regions.

“Now is not the time to turn inward. In a crisis, more trade is needed to ensure stable and equitable access to basic necessities. Restricting trade will jeopardize the well-being of families and the prosperity of businesses and will make it more difficult to achieve a sustainable economic recovery from Covid-19,” said Ms Okonjo-Iweala.

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