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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala first woman and African to lead WTO

She is taking charge at a time when the WTO “is facing so many challenges, and it’s clear to me that deep and wide-ranging reforms are needed ... it cannot be business as usual”.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO

Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been chosen as the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). She is the first woman and first African in the position in the 73 years of the WTO, previously the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

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Okonjo-Iweala was named Director-General by representatives of the 164 countries that make up the WTO, which oversees the rules of trade between nations based on negotiated agreements.

“This is a very significant moment for the WTO. On behalf of the General Council, I extend our warmest congratulations to Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on her appointment as the WTO’s next Director-General and formally welcome her to this General Council meeting,” said General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand who, together with co-facilitators Ambassador Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Ambassador Harald Aspelund (Iceland), led the nine-month selection process.

“Dr Ngozi, on behalf of all members I wish to sincerely thank you for your graciousness in these exceptional months, and for your patience. We look forward to collaborating closely with you, Dr Ngozi, and I am certain that all members will work with you constructively during your tenure as Director-General to shape the future of this organisation,” he added in the statement.

Okonjo-Iweala said in an online news conference that she was taking charge at a time when the WTO “is facing so many challenges, and it’s clear to me that deep and wide-ranging reforms are needed … it cannot be business as usual”.

The 66-year-old mother of four takes over after four years of former US President Donald Trump implementing import taxes against China and the European Union to support his America first trade agenda.

“It will not be easy because we also have the issue of lack of trust among members which has built up over time, not just among the US and China and the US and the EU… but also between developing and developed country members, and we need to work through that,” said Okonjo-Iweala, according to an AP report.

She said that as the first woman and first African to hold the post, “I absolutely do feel an additional burden, I can’t lie about that. Being the first woman and the first African means that one really has to perform.

“All credit to members for electing me and making that history, but the bottom line is that if I want to really make Africa and women proud I have to produce results, and that’s where my mind is at now.”

Okonjo-Iweala has been Nigeria’s finance minister and briefly, foreign minister, the first woman appointed to both positions, and had a 25-year career at the World Bank as an advocate for economic growth and development in poorer countries. She rose to the position of Managing Director, where she oversaw US$81 billion in development financing in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. In 2012 she made an unsuccessful bid for the top post with the backing of African and other developing countries, challenging the traditional practice that the World Bank is always headed by an American.

She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University and a PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is considered a trailblazer by many.

Okonjo-Iweala will need to use all her experience as a trade minister and negotiator in the new position. “I’ve been doing that all my life, working on trade policy issues,” she said during a webinar organised by Chatham House in July last year.

She added that the Director-General should go beyond technical skills: “Most of all, you need boldness, courage.”

The vacancy was created in May 2020 when former WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil announced he was stepping down a year before his term was set to expire.

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