WTO appoints Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as new director general

By on 19/02/2021 | Updated on 19/02/2021
Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has become the first woman and first African director general of the WTO. Credit: Joy Asico/World Bank/Flickr

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) appointed its first woman and first African director general, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on Monday.

Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm after the Biden administration endorsed her appointment earlier this month. The Trump team had backed an alternative candidate, South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, leading to deadlock over the appointment. But Yoo pulled out of the WTO’s leadership race on 5 February – a decision which, she said, was made in “close consultation” with the US. The Biden administration then backed Okonjo-Iweala, allowing the WTO general council to secure consensus around her appointment.

In a short WTO video introducing herself, the new DG said that she hopes her appointment will give encouragement to other women in their studies and careers. “I hope it is a sign, not only to women and girls in my country, but to women and girls worldwide, that the world is ready, and women can do it,” she said.

New priorities

Okonjo-Iweala’s experience gives her strong credentials. After studying economics at Harvard and MIT, she spent 25 years at the World Bank. She was a development economist, working on programme and policy reforms, and eventually became its managing director. She also served as Nigeria’s finance minister twice – in 2003-2006 and 2011-2015 – and was the first woman to assume the role.

She has held many other leadership roles. From 2016 to 2020 she chaired Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance: a public–private global health partnership that works to improve access to vaccines for children in poor countries. Along with the World Health Organisation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi is currently co-leading the COVAX programme – which aims to support the development of COVID-19 vaccines and ensure equal access.

Okonjo-Iweala also sits on the boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter. Until last year she chaired the board of African Risk Capacity, an agency that helps African governments to better prepare and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters.

Former WTO chief Pascal Lamy told Reuters: “She brings stature, she brings experience, a network and a temperament of trying to get things done, which is quite a welcome lot in my view.”

Okonjo-Iweala said a key priority will be to work with member nations to address the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – including a trend towards “vaccine nationalism”.

“A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again. Our organisation faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today,” she said.

Work to be done

Okonjo-Iweala faces the challenge of re-establishing the WTO’s role amid criticism from the US and others that it has ignored alleged trade abuses by Beijing, and failed to act against other member countries using undeclared subsidies.

The Trump administration spent four years at loggerheads with the WTO, leaving its trade disputes appeals panel unable to operate. The Appellate Body heard appeals against decisions on trade disputes made by WTO settlement panels, but its work came to a standstill when the US blocked new appointments.

The DG selection process set off in May 2020 after Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo, who served as DG from 2013, announced that he would step down one year before the end of his second term.

Announcing her new appointment, Okonjo-Iweala referred to the Marrakesh Agreement, the treaty signed by 123 nations in 1994 to establish the WTO. “The preamble… states that the objectives of the WTO are to raise living standards, ensure full employment, increase incomes, expand the production of and trade in goods and services, and seek the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development,” she said. “The preamble says it all!” she added. “The WTO is about people! It’s about decent work! Let us place its overarching purpose front and centre as a driver for all we seek to accomplish for the multilateral trading system”.

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