Five things to know about new WTO director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Mon 15 Feb 2021
Posted by: William Barns-Graham
Trade News

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Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has beaten seven other candidates – including the UK’s Dr Liam Fox MP – to today become the first African and woman to lead the World Trade Organization.

On the campaign trail she evangelised trade’s ability to lift people out of poverty, but after years of criticism of the WTO from major member nations including the US, she is now tasked with keeping the Geneva-based body relevant.

Here are five things you should know about the new boss at the WTO 

1. Global pedigree

In her 25 years working at the World Bank, she oversaw an $81 billion portfolio and rose to the organisation’s second most senior position.

She was also the first woman to hold the finance minister position in her home country Nigeria – a position she has held twice.

Her hard-nosed negotiating skills helped seal a deal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations in 2005, US News reports.

2. African perspective

A native of Africa’s largest and fastest developing economy, she believes international trade should generate economic development beyond the West.

Nigeria’s population of 200 million is set to double by 2050, with the country already a hotbed of entrepreneurialism and technology as it looks to shift from being an oil-based economy to one that is more diversified.

Writing in City AM, former Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Mark Simmonds, said:

“For the incoming WTO head, harnessing the power of global trade to boost development in countries like Nigeria will be a key yardstick for success. A more prosperous and inclusive future relies on trade cooperation between nations from across the development spectrum.” 

3. Harvard-educated US citizen

She became a US citizen during the Trump presidency, having lived and studied there for years.

Politico reports that the 66-year-old economist earned her bachelor’s degree at Harvard and PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She lives on and off in Washington DC with a neurosurgeon husband and three children.

4. Call for 'collective action'

Given the interconnectedness of the world’s economies, a collective response will always be stronger than individual responses, she has said.

Politico reports that Okonjo-Iweala told the WTO General Counsel last autumn:

“If the right washes the left hand, and the left hand washes the right hand, then both become clean. This is a call for collective action.”

5. Taking on WTO doubters

Okonjo-Iweala takes the WTO’s top job following a difficult period in which former US President Donal Trump’s administration sought to undermine the organisation as an arbitrator in international trade disputes.

There were concerns – particularly from the US which till recently backed Southern Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee for the position – that she didn’t have enough of a background in trade.

To reassert the WTO’s position as an effective rule maker in international trade, the Nigerian hopes to progress negotiations for a wide range of trade regulatory matters including fishing subsidies and e-commerce.

Marco Forgione, director general of the IOE&IT, commented:

“We need a new generation of thinking and doing in international trade. The WTO under its new leader Dr Okono-Iweala has a role in leading that and the Institute of Export & International Trade is ready to play its part in preparing the trade workforce of the future.

The appointment of Dr Okono-Iweala “is very welcome," Forgione added. "We hope she will take a strong lead in promoting rules-based trade around the world. Trade is a huge driver of global prosperity and the WTO has been a big enabler of that."