With her term set to begin on the first of March, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is about to become both the first woman and the first African to become Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. While the role has little direct effect on policy–the role is largely that of an administrator and consultant–the appointment marks an important landmark for an extremely relevant international body. Her term will extend until the 31st of August, 2025, with the option of renewal. Her combination of technocratic skills and political instincts may prove a winning combination for leading an organisation for whom cooperation is a faint memory.
Born and raised in Southern Nigeria, she is the daughter of two successful academics. The Nigeria she experienced during her youth was still in its infancy as a nation, only becoming independent when was she 6. Much of her formative days were spent in the company of her Grandmother, who raised her, and in service of the six siblings with whom she grew up. By nine years old, she had learned to manage and conduct much of the household’s business.
She has an impressive educational background, having studied first at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude with an A.B. in Economics, before earning her PhD in MIT. She continued on to an impressive 25 year career in the World Bank, culminating in her appointment to the position of Managing Director, a role which involved her overseeing a portfolio of $81 billion in Africa, Europe, and much of Asia.
Her time at the World Bank was punctuated by periods of Ministerial Office in the Nigerian government. Here too she was a trailblazer, becoming both the first female Finance Minister, with that being a position she held for two terms, and the first female Foreign Affairs Minister. She is credited with having helped Nigeria to obtain its first sovereign credit rating from Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor’s and helping to steady and strengthen the public finances.
That expertise and experience will mean a great deal in dealing with the immense challenges that the WTO faces; founded in 1996, it is entering what is arguably its most challenging period. Protectionism is on the rise, economic growth remains somewhat unlikely with the COVID-19 Pandemic still ongoing, and the organisation’s system for dispute settlement remains weakened from the challenges it faced from the Trump administration.
In her acceptance speech from WTO Headquarters in Geneva, Okonjo-Iweala spoke with an impressive determination, saying “It’s been a long and tough road, full of uncertainty, but now it’s the dawn of a new day and the real work can begin.” She also outlined her plans for the future, with her immediate plans being the formation of enduring trade rules for responding to pandemic.She will also focus on renewing negotiations in the areas of fishery subsidies and digital trade.
She began her candidacy with broad support, with her campaign having gained the support of most countries by October, with the Trump Administration being the noticeable hold-out. In its formal report on the election, the WTO noted that Okonjo-Iweala, “clearly carried the largest support by Members in the final round; and, enjoyed broad support from Members from all levels of development and from all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process."
The Chinese Representative and Ambassador to the WTO, Li Chenggang, voiced China’s support for the incoming Director-General, noting that, “the collective decision made by the entire membership demonstrates a vote of trust not only in Dr. Ngozi herself, but also in our vision, our expectation and the multilateral trading system that we all believe and preserve.” Whether or not China acts upon the intentions it states here may play an important part in deciding the success or failure of Okonjo-Iweala’s term, as the country has a mixed record in its compliance with WTO rules and rulings, something which has weakened the organisations influence.
In summary, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala can look forward to a busy term as Director-General. At any time, acting as Director for as large a multilateral body as the WTO, especially as it rules by consensus, is difficult, but in a time as volatile as this, the challenge cannot be overestimated. Yet few would be better equipped to take on the challenges that will arise as she is; better equipped by education, by experience, and by instinct.