Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed the new chief of the World Trade Organization, becoming the first woman to ever lead the Switzerland-based institution and the first African citizen to take on the role. However, this is not the first time that Okonjo-Iweala makes history.
Born in Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala graduated from Harvard University in 1976 and then earned a PhD from MIT. She then became the first woman to take on the Nigerian finance ministry and the foreign ministry too. She was also the first female to run for the World Bank presidency, where she spent 25 years.
In October, her WTO candidacy was supported by all geographic regions at the trade body apart from the United States, where the then-Trump administration said it would continue backing the Korean candidate. However, Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment was cleared when President Joe Biden announced a few days ago his support for the 66-year old.
Her vision for the WTO
The WTO is at a crossroads after many countries seemed to take a step back from long-standing norms governing international trade. In addition, its appellate body has been paralyzed for months after the U.S. — again, under the Trump administration — prevented the appointment of new judges therefore rendering it unable to rule on any trade disputes.
“My vision is also of a rejuvenated and strengthened WTO that will be confident to tackle effectively ongoing issues,” Okonjo-Iweala told WTO members during a hearing in July.
“It is clear that a rules-based system without a forum in which a breach of the rules can be effectively arbitrated loses credibility over time,” she said at the same hearing.
I can take hardship. I can sleep on the cold floor anytime.
Officials in the European Union and the United States have previously said the WTO needs to be reformed and its rules updated, but there is no consensus on how to do it.
“The WTO appears paralyzed at a time when its rule book would greatly benefit from an update to 21st century issues such as ecommerce and the digital economy, the green and circular economies,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
She is also likely to support female participation in global trade, having said that “greater efforts should be made to include women-owned enterprises in the formal sector.”
The path has been cleared for Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to become the first woman and the first African to lead the World Trade Organization after South Korea's candidate pulled out of the race for the job.
Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister, announced her decision to withdraw in a televised briefing on Friday.
Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and former finance minister of Nigeria, already enjoyed broad support from WTO members, including the European Union, China, Japan and Australia.
However, the United States, under the Trump administration, had favored Yoo, complicating the decision-making process since the selection of a new leader requires all WTO members to agree. Okonjo-Iweala's formal selection may have to wait until after the United States appoints a new trade representative.
Yoo said that her decision had been reached after "close consultation" with the United States. The WTO had been without a leader for too long, she added.
The Geneva-based body, tasked with promoting free trade, has been without a permanent director general since Roberto Azevêdo stepped down a year earlier than planned at the end of August after the WTO was caught in the middle of an escalating trade fight between the United States and China.
The Trump administration was highly critical of the WTO and undermined its standing by imposing tariffs on Canada, Mexico, China and the European Union. Okonjo-Iweala will thus assume control of an organization that has struggled to prevent trade spats between its members.
While US President Joe Biden has already taken steps to restore support for multilateral institutions, he is expected to proceed with caution when it comes to signing any new trade deals.
In a speech to the State Department Thursday, Biden pledged to put diplomacy back at the center of US foreign policy, but was also careful to emphasize that foreign policy should benefit middle-class Americans.
Okonjo-Iweala, who hails from one of the few parts of the world where free trade is ascendent, told CNN in August that trade would play an important role in the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
"The WTO needs a leader at this time. It needs a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it's in," she said in an interview.
Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the position of managing director. She also chaired the board of Gavi, which is helping to distribute coronavirus vaccines globally, stepping down at the end of her term in December.
The global economy faces profound uncertainties, particularly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, faith in the efficacy of international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been weakened by a power struggle between China and the US.
As the process for appointing a new head of the organisation moves into its final phase, it’s worth considering what front runner Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala could bring to the complex role of managing an international organisation, including designing and implementing reforms.
The WTO describes itself as a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements. A key objective of the WTO is the liberalisation of trade for the mutual benefit of its members. This concept has become a divisive issue as a result of the perceived imbalances in the rights and obligations of members and the perceived uneven distribution of the gains from trade.
Okonjo-Iweala would be in a position to use her multifaceted experiences to energise the WTO’s 164 members to work harder to achieve the value of the multilateral trade systems. Given her experience in being able to diplomatically manage people and institutions resistant to change, she could also provide the impetus for member countries to overcome the challenges that have paralysed the trade organisation for years.
Okonjo-Iweala has gained acute negotiation skills from her experiences in negotiating with institutions and countries, as she did when she negotiated for Nigeria’s debts relief.
In addition, Okonjo-Iweala has held top positions in several international bodies, including corporates as well as not for profit organisations. Her ability to serve in senior positions in these disparate cultural settings means that she will be able to navigate the complex terrain of an organisation that has a mandate to serve the interests of 164 member states.
Her international exposure also means that she has developed an extensive network across the globe which she is bound to call on in the WTO job.
In addition, Okonjo-Iweala has a proven track record in carrying out successful reforms both at the World Bank and as the finance minister in Nigeria. Carrying out these reforms would have required negotiating with various constituencies.
The early days
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was born to a royal family of Chukwuka and Kamene Okonjo on 13 June 1954, in Delta State, Nigeria. Her parents were both professors at the University of Ibadan. She completed secondary school at the International School Ibadan and St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan. The young Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala proceeded to Harvard University. She graduated in 1977 with honours in economics. She went on to complete a PhD in regional economics and development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Okonjo-Iweala’s professional life points to decades in the thick of economic policy – global as well as local.
She worked for many years at the World Bank where she started as an intern. After gaining her PhD she returned to the bank to work as a development economist. She was to spend 25 years at the institution, rising to the position of vice president.
Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low income countries during the 2008-2009 food and financial crises. For example, as managing director of the World Bank from 2007 to 2011, she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.
In 2010, she was chair of the World Bank’s successful drive to raise $49.3 billion in grants and low interest credit for the poorest countries in the world.
In 2012 she became the first female and black candidate to contest for the presidency of World Bank Group. She lost to Jim Yong Kim, the president of Dartmouth College.
Having worked for about 25 years in the World Bank, negotiating and pushing for progressive agreement and development, Okonjo-Iweala has developed keenly honed negotiation skills.
In addition, she is an outsider to the WTO who offers the comprehensive skills and experience needed to shake up the organisation and bring progress to world trade. Her African origin places her on political neutral ground, enabling her, among other things, to objectively mediate issues between China and US.
These skills and traits also mean that she’s in a strong position to build a trade institution where there is greater trust among its members.
Her service to Nigeria
In 2003, she was appointed Nigeria’s minister of finance by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo. She became the first female finance minister and had several reforms to her credit.
As minister of finance in Nigeria, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion.
She had several battles with powerful political interests in Nigeria. She slashed the number of agencies in the country. She drastically cut fuel subsidies in a subsidy scheme that was enmeshed in a difficult web of corruption that made the country lose $6.8bn over a three-year period.
Okonjo-Iweala introduced practical economic reforms which changed the worldview of Nigeria as seemingly hopeless and comatose. She turned around the largest economy in Africa.
Nigeria, for the first time in history, had electronic financial management reforms. She also introduced macroeconomic reforms and many policy strategies like a medium term expenditure framework and medium term budgeting.
For a brief period in 2006, Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria’s first female minister of foreign affairs. After resigning from government she set up a research organisation, NOI Polls.
In 2011 she was reappointed as minister of finance and coordinating minister of the economy by the then President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan. She served in the position until 2015. In that time, Nigeria’s economic growth rate remained at an average of 6% per annum.
Under her leadership, Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics rebased the gross domestic productfor the time first in 24 years. This saw Nigeria emerge as the largest economy in Africa. She took a lot of heat for the government’s decision to remove the fuel subsidy. Protests ensued and the policy was reversed.
I have no doubt in my mind that Okonjo-Iweala would be an exemplary leader of the global trade organisation because she would balance policies between the advanced economies and developing ones to achieve sustainable global economic growth and development.
The appointment of Nigeria's ex-finance minister to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been thrown into doubt after the US opposed the move.
On Wednesday, a WTO nominations committee recommended the group's 164 members appoint Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
She would be the first woman and first African to lead the WTO.
But the US, critical of the WTO's handling of global trade, wants another woman, South Korea's Yoo Myung-hee, saying she could reform the body.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala said she was "immensely humbled" to be nominated.
But the four-month selection process to find the next WTO director-general hit a road block when Washington said it would continue to back South Korea's trade minister.
In a statement critical of the WTO, the Office of the US Trade Representative, which advises President Donald Trump on trade policy, said the organisation "must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field".
Ms Yoo had "distinguished herself" as a trade expert and "has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organisation", the statement said.
It added: "This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations. The WTO is badly in need of major reform."
The statement did not mention Ms Okonjo-Iweala.
Earlier on Wednesday, after a WTO delegates meeting to discuss the appointment, spokesman Keith Rockwell said just one member country did not support Ms Okonjo-Iweala.
"All of the delegations that expressed their views today expressed very strong support for the process... for the outcome. Except for one," he said.
Mr Trump has described the WTO as "horrible" and biased towards China, and some appointments to key roles in the organisation have already been blocked.
The WTO has called a meeting for 9 November - after the US presidential election - to discuss the issue. US opposition does not mean the Nigerian cannot be appointed, but Washington could nevertheless wield considerable influence over the final decision.
Mr Rockwell told reporters there was likely to be "frenzied activity" to secure a consensus for Ms Okonjo-Iweala's appointment. She has the support of the European Union.
The leadership void was created after outgoing WTO chief Roberto Azevedo stepped down a year early in August. The WTO is currently being steered by four deputies.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala, 66, served as her country's first female finance and foreign minister and has a 25-year career behind her as a development economist at the World Bank..
She also serves on Twitter's board of directors, as chair of the GAVI vaccine alliance and as a special envoy for the World Health Organisation's Covid-19 fight.
If Ms Okonjo-Iweala is eventually appointed she will have a full in-tray. The WTO is already grappling with stalled trade talks and tensions between the US and China.
Earlier this month she said that her broad experience in championing reform made her the right person to help put the WTO back on track. "I am a reform candidate and I think the WTO needs the reform credentials and skills now.
The selection of a new director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is entering its final stage.
The final two – from an initial list of eight candidates – are Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee.
Both are female which means that if members of the WTO can coalesce around one them in the final stages of selection, it will be the first time the job has been taken by a woman.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Yoo both have political and international experience and both were students at American universities.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala, who also has US nationality, has had two spells as finance minister and a short stint as foreign minister in Nigeria.
Much of her career was spent as an economist at the World Bank. She eventually rose to the position of managing director, essentially second in command at the institution. She has been an unsuccessful candidate for the top job at the bank.
She is currently chair of the board of the international vaccines alliance, Gavi.
She has not spent her career immersed in the details of trade policy as some other candidates did. But her work as a development economist and finance minister means she has often had to deal with international trade.
She describes trade as “a mission and a passion”.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala would be the first African to be director general of the WTO.
Ms Yoo is much more of a trade specialist.
Her statement to the WTO’s general council hinted at a literal lifetime in the area – she said she was born the same year that South Korea acceded to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which became one of the key elements of the WTO’s rule book.
She started her career in trade, she said, in the year the WTO was born, 1995.
She has been involved in some of South Korea’s key trade negotiations in that period, including with China and the US. She makes a point of her “deep knowledge and insight into the details of various areas of trade agreements”.
Both candidates were keen to point out their abilities in bringing sides together in negotiations.
That is a skill the successful candidate will have to draw on extensively.
It is important to remember that a WTO director general can only make progress if they can get the member countries on board.
It has been said that the DG has no executive power; that they are more like a butler announcing to the member countries) that dinner is served.
But the WTO is an organisation under stress. Two of the biggest commercial powers on the planet – China and the US – are embroiled in bitter trade conflict.
The US has some substantial concerns about the WTO. Many of them pre-date President Trump, but his administration has taken a less collaborative approach to pursuing them.
The US has undermined the WTO’s ability to carry out one of its main functions – settling trade disputes between member countries.
It has refused to allow the body which hears appeals to appoint new members, effectively judges. That reflects US concerns that the body’s judgements were going beyond the WTO rulebook. The US block has left it unable to take new appeal cases.
It doesn’t mean the dispute settlement system doesn’t work at all, but it is seriously impaired.
In terms of diversity, the WTO seems to be heading into new territory. It will, almost certainly, have a woman as Director General for the first time a woman.
The regional representation might also break new ground, if the African candidate gets the job – there has been an Asian director general before, from Thailand.
If all goes to plan we will know who it is by early November.