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Career Ngozi Okonjo Iweala takes over as head of WTO

Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo Iweala has been appointed Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The main task of the first woman and first African to hold the role, will be to revive trade negotiations, blocked for several years.



By Talel de Sinta


« History is made» the WTO titled on its website. Though its official launch was on African soil – in Morocco, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has never been led by an African, since its establishment in 1995. Now this has been done, since February 15, 2021. And it is not only an African but also a woman, Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo Iweala.


WTO Headquarters at the Centre William-Rappard, Geneva-WTO


“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 Amb. Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Amb. Harald Aspelund (Iceland) led the nine-month DG 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 organization,” he added.


“A strong WTO is essential if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic”


For the new Director General, this is a heavy task that weighs on her shoulders, namely to promote development that leaves no one by the wayside. The most urgent task is to enable the world’s poor countries to acquire COVID-19 vaccines.


A former Minister of Finance of Nigeria with a PhD in economics, she has more than 30 years of experience in development issues-photo credit https://ngoziokonjoiweala.com


From an African perspective, the appointment of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala raises hopes. Renowned for her intransigence, Okonjo-Iweala is a former Nigerian finance minister, a position she held twice, from 2003 to 2006 and from 2011 to 2015. She briefly served as foreign minister in 2006 and is an expert economist in global finance.

Okonjo-Iweala holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University (1976) and a doctorate in economics and regional development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT,1981). She has more than 30 years of development and financial expertise, including at the World Bank and was previously Board Chair of Gavi, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.


Spearheading several initiatives in favor of low-income countries


Renowned as the first female and African candidate to contest for the presidency of the World Bank Group in 2012, backed by Africa and major developing countries, she spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to help low-income countries during the 2008-2009 food crisis and later during the financial crisis.

As Finance Minister of Nigeria, she led negotiations with the Paris Club creditors that resulted in the cancellation of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion. Ranked as one of Transparency International’s 8 Inspiring Women Fighting Corruption (2019), among the 100 Most Influential People in the World (TIME, 2014), Ngozi Okonjo Iweala also founded the Center for the Study of Economies of Africa (C-SEA), a development research think tank based in Abuja, Nigeria.

“I am honored to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General,” said Dr Okonjo-Iweala. “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. Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”

The election of Ngozi Okonjo Iweala as head of the WTO is a major event at the beginning of 2021, for while the UN organization has not really functioned as many countries had hoped since its creation in 1995, multilateralism has taken a hit in recent years.

Ngozi Okonjo Iweala must work to revive trade negotiations, some of which are blocked because they are deemed to penalize or not benefit poor countries.


Multilateralism and implementation of fairer trade agreements


Spearheading several initiatives in favor of low-income countries-photo credit https://ngoziokonjoiweala.com


To prove this point, it should be remembered that it has been five years now since there has been a single multilateral agreement – the latest being the “trade facilitation” agreement in 2015. Another one is under discussion among WTO members, the agreement on fisheries subsidies which should be signed in 2020 but postponed because of coronavirus. Another agreement remains blocked, the one on e-commerce: with the exception of Nigeria, no other country on the continent has agreed to sign it. For various reasons, mainly the fear of being “digitally colonized”.

Ngozi Okonjo Iweala’s task will not be an easy one, given the pandemic that has accentuated existing challenges and opened up new ones. To measure the consequences, one need only review UNCTAD’s estimates, according to which “the 47 poorest countries in the world (the majority of which are in Africa) are expected to record the worst economic performance of the last thirty years with, on average, a contraction of their gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.4%”.

Even worse, still according to UNCTAD, more than “32 million more people have been pushed into extreme poverty in these same countries, wiping out decades of development efforts…».

The WTO will now focus on establishing fairer trade agreements. That is certainly the commitment and promise of its new Director General.

In the meantime, her term, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.

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