Okonjo-Iweala becomes first woman, African to lead WTO

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Photo: gavi.org)

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has become the first woman and first African to head the World Trade Organization (WTO)

The 66-year-old was named director-general by representatives of the 164 countries that make up the WTO. The WTO deals with the rules of trade between nations.

In a statement, Okonjo-Iweala said her first priority would be quickly addressing the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and to “implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.”

“Our organisation 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,” she said in a statement.

The appointment came after US President Joe Biden endorsed her candidacy, which had been blocked by former President Donald Trump.

Biden’s move was a step toward his aim of supporting more cooperative approaches to international problems after Trump’s “America first” approach that launched multiple trade disputes.

Okonjo-Iweala has been Nigeria’s finance minister and, briefly, foreign minister. She has had a 25-year career at the World Bank as an advocate for economic growth and development in poorer countries.

She rose to the No. 2 position of managing director, where she oversaw $81 billion in development financing in Africa, South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia.

She made an unsuccessful bid for the top post in 2012 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 said she is a believer in the power of trade to lift developing countries out of poverty.

Serving as special envoy for the African Union to mobilise financial support for the fight against COVID-19, she urged 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.