World Trade Organization gets first female and first African leader
The new leader of the World Trade Organization faces many challenges. Keystone / Martial Trezzini
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has confirmed former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its next leader, ending months of delays and logjams at the Geneva-based body. She is the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. Her task will not be easy.
This content was published on February 15, 2021
It has taken more than six months for the WTO to agree on a new director-general. Okonjo-Iweala will succeed Roberto Azevedo of Brazil, who announced last May he was stepping down before the end of his mandate. He left the WTO at the beginning of August.
It has taken this long to find a new leader not only because the WTO had to find a consensus among its member states but also due to the US stance under former President Donald Trump. The original eight candidates were whittled down to two. The Trump administration supported South Korea’s current trade minister Yoo Myung-hee and threatened to block Okonjo-Iweala. With Trump gone, the way was cleared for the Nigerian candidate.
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Peter Ungphakorn, a trade specialist who used to work in the WTO, said it is a relief that the organisation now has a leader, and symbolically interesting that for the first time the director-general is a woman and an African. He noted that decisions within the WTO are down to its members and not the director-general. Her role will be mainly to help restore trust within the organisation and in terms of its public image, to promote the good work that is often forgotten, and play a mediating role between member states “when they are ready”.
“It’s important not to forget that a lot of good work is still being done in the WTO,” said Ungphakorn. “In normal (non-pandemic) times, around $20 trillion of trade flows around the world with little or no hitch. That’s what the WTO is for, why it has agreements, to keep trade flowing smoothly. So by and large the rules work. Where countries may have concerns, they discuss those concerns in unglamorous technical committees. Most of the time, discussion is enough. Only a minuscule minority of issues ever end up as formal legal disputes.”
Who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala?
The new WTO director-general will need strong diplomatic and personal skills. Does she have them?
International development expert Okonjo-Iweala, 66, has both Nigerian and US citizenship. She is a Harvard economics graduate and obtained US citizenship in 2019 after long years of living and working there. She served as finance and foreign minister in her native country, Nigeria, and is also a former Managing Director of the World Bank. Her current activities include chairing the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which aims to increase access to immunisation in poor countries and is currently co-leading the COVAX vaccine pool, an initiative to promote equal access to Covid-19 vaccines.
According to her official biography on the WTO websiteExternal link, she is a reformer, an anti-corruption campaigner and “skilled negotiator”. “She is regarded as an effective consensus builder and honest broker enjoying the trust and confidence of governments and other stakeholders,” her website says.
With its dispute settlement mechanism blocked by the Trump administration, ongoing trade tensions especially between the US and China, and calls for reform, the WTO faces many challenges. Its rules are old and need updating.
Will the Biden administration’s support for Okonjo-Iweala also mean a softer stance on other contentious issues, such as getting the dispute settlement mechanism working again? “It’s too early to tell,” said Ungphakorn. “Supporting her candidacy is a smart diplomatic move. It signals the US return to multilateralism. But she cannot affect US rights and obligations in the WTO trading system, its concerns about dispute settlement, or about China, nor the negotiations. Those can only be sorted out among the membership.”