Nigeria’s Dr. Okonjo-Iweala selected to be World Trade Organization’s first female and African director

Last week, the World Trade Organization (WTO)  selected Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to serve as their seventh director-general.

Following Robert Azevedo’s stepping down from his post as director-general, Okonjo-Iweala quickly became the universal favorite to assume his position, aside from some members of the Trump administration. Okonjo-Iweala is a former Minister of Finance for the Republic of Nigeria, and previously served as a development economist for 25 years at the World Bank. She will not only be the first African but also the first woman to lead the WTO, which governs trade rules between nations. Among other “firsts,” she was also the first woman to serve as Nigeria’s finance minister, to serve in that office twice, and the only finance minister to serve under two different presidents. Okonjo-Iweala said she was “honored” to be selected to lead the organization and vowed to take on global health and economic challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. “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,” Okonjo-Iweala said. She will assume office on March 1, 2021. 

Her path to becoming director-general of the WTO was not the smoothest. The U.S.initially refused to join the consensus around her appointment, claiming she lacked experience, and instead supported Yoo Myung-hee, a South Korean candidate who ended up withdrawing her name. However, when the Biden administration entered the White House it announced its support for Okonjo-Iwaela, which led to the historic appointment. Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed at a time when world trade and the global economy as a whole have been severely damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not an enviable position to be in when global supply chains are experiencing the effects of the pandemic as a result of the previous air travel restrictions, which affected multiple sectors across the globe. All eyes will be on the new director-general, previously board chair of Gavi, the vaccine alliance, to use her former office as a means of managing the rise of COVID-19 vaccine disadvantages in poor countries. This will speak volumes for her ability to bring equity in global trade if she is able to deliver.

“It feels exciting and it feels daunting at the same time. I look forward to the challenge – deep reforms are needed to rebrand and reposition the organization,” said Okonjo-Iwalea in an interview with Christiane Amanpour from CNN. She also says her top priority includes ramping up global efforts to combat the pandemic, both economically and health wise. In her words, economic recovery is reliant on trade, and solving public health challenges also requires “good trade.”




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