Okonjo-Iweala becomes first female to lead World Trade Organization

Updated: Feb 16

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has appointed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its new director-general.She becomes the first woman and first African to hold the role.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala, 66, had seen her candidacy placed at risk when Donald Trump boycotted her appointment as part of his efforts to secure better outcomes for the United States.

President Joe Biden's decision to overturn the block on her appointment has signaled a more collaborative approach.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria's finance minister and worked for 25 years as a specialist in development economics at the World Bank. As managing director of the bank, she oversaw $81bn (£58bn) worth of operations.

In 2003, when she left her job as vice-president of the World Bank to return to Nigeria as finance minister, the country was in massive debt and the country was divided. In her stints in charge of Nigeria’s finances, she tackled Africa’s most populous country’s $30bn debt.

On Monday, Okonjo-Iweala was added to the list of director generals of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a position that has never before been occupied by an African person nor by a woman. She will take over the institution, with its budget of $220m and staff of 650, at a critical time.

Speaking after her appointment, she said her top priority was to ensure the WTO does more to address the coronavirus pandemic, saying members should accelerate efforts to lift export restrictions slowing trade in needed medicines and supplies, and warned of the danger posed by “vaccine nationalism”.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” she told Reuters.

“Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming. If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blowback. It’s unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology.”

She has said in the past that she is a believer in the power of trade to lift developing countries out of poverty and has called on richer countries to support a two-year standstill on debt service for indebted countries and proposed easing economic sanctions on Sudan and Zimbabwe for health reasons.

The WTO had been without a director-general since August last year.

Eight candidates had put themselves forward to replace the outgoing chief, Roberto Azevêdo, including the UK’s former trade minister Liam Fox. 

Meanwhile, high on Ms Okonjo-Iweala's agenda, are outstanding issues that include a multilateral accord to curb harmful fishing subsidies and re-appointing judges to fill vacant posts on the appeals panel.

There is also ongoing negotiations to find an agreement on rules governing the $26tn global e-commerce marketplace, which many countries resist due to the dominance of US technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.