Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the woman who makes history at World Trade Organization

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigeria-born Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was on Monday confirmed as the new leader of the World Trade Organization (WTO), with a mandate to revitalize the 164-member global trade body.

Following the announcement at the organization’s Geneva headquarters, the 66-year-old Nigerian makes history as the first woman and the first African to be elected as its director-general.

With degrees from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Nigerian economist and international development expert was among eight candidates who initially showed interest in succeeding Roberto Azevedo, a Brazilian career diplomat, who stepped down last August, one year ahead of schedule, as leader of the multilateral institution.

The chance of becoming the new head of the trade organization got a boost as her closest rival, South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, withdrew her candidacy earlier this month.

During the campaign for support, Okonjo-Iweala described herself as “a reform candidate”, while pledging to help member states out against the severe global economic slowdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She had previously spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist. At the World Bank, she rose to the position of the number two at the global lender, as managing director in charge of operations between 2007 and 2011.

During the 2008 and 2009 food and financial crises, the Nigerian economist spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries.

Back home in Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala was the first woman to become the country’s finance minister. She was the first woman to serve the country in that capacity, twice (from 2003-2006, and 2011-2015).

Between 2011 and 2015, when she was reappointed as minister of finance, Okonjo-Iweala got an expanded portfolio as the coordinating minister of the economy.

She also served as Nigeria’s first female minister of foreign affairs in 2006.

In 2012, Okonjo-Iweala was a candidate for president of the World Bank. If elected at the time, she would have become the World Bank’s first female president.

She is on the Twitter board of directors and chaired Gavi, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation.

“There is vital work ahead to do together,” she said ahead of confirmation by WTO.

“I am honored to have been selected by WTO members as WTO director-general… 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,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement on Monday.

“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,” she added. Enditem

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