Nigerian-American economist Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was chosen as seventh Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on February 15. Supported unanimously by the General Council, she is the first woman and African to hold the office. Her term will start on March 1, 2021 and will expire on Aug. 31, 2025.
In the process that lasted nine months, the 66 year old former World Bank Managing Director faced competition from seven candidates including from Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea. The United States (US) under the Trump Administration had refused to back Dr Okonjo-Iweala and instead had supported the candidacy of Yoo Myung-hee. However, Ms Yoo withdrew from the competition on Feb. 5, paving way for Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s selection. The newly elected Biden Administration of the US supported the candidacy of Dr Okonjo-Iweala.
The consultation for the candidates was guided by the 2002 General Council decision guidelines which state that the key criteria in determining the candidate best positioned to gain consensus is the “breadth of support” each candidate receives from the members. General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand together with co-facilitators Amb. Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Amb. Harald Aspelund (Iceland) led the nine-month selection process for Director-General.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has over 30 years of experience working in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America. Currently, she is Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. She has a degree in Economics from Harvard and PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She returned to Nigeria and served as Nigeria’s Finance Minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and briefly acted as Foreign Minister in 2006. She also had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, where she rose to the No. 2 position of Managing Director, Operations. She is married to neurosurgeon Dr. Ikemba Iweala.
In a statement released by WTO Dr Okonjo-Iweala said a key priority for her would be to work with members to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For the first time in the seventy-three years of GATT and WTO, you are selecting a woman and an African as Director-General. This is groundbreaking and positive. I am grateful for the trust you have in me, not just as a woman and an African, but also in my knowledge, experience, and, as some of you have said, possessing the courage and passion to work with you to undertake the wide ranging reforms the WTO needs to reposition itself for the future,” expressed Dr Okonjo-Iweala in her statement.
She further urged nations to “reject vaccine nationalism and protectionism”.
“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.