WASHINGTON – The World Trade Organization officially selected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian economist and former finance minister, as its next leader on Monday. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African woman to serve as Director General, will assume the position on March 1 for a renewable term that expires on August 31, 2025.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement that it was an honor for her to be selected and that she would work with member countries of the organization to address the health problems caused by the pandemic and “get the world economy going again”.
“A strong WTO is vital if we are to fully and quickly recover from the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. “Our organization faces many challenges, but together we can adapt the WTO to be stronger, more agile and better suited to today’s realities.”
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm of the WTO at a particularly difficult time for the global trade organization, which was founded in 1995 to resolve trade disputes, write new trade rules and promote the flow of goods and services around the world.
The organization’s many critics say it fell short on several of these fronts, including failure to promote new trade negotiations and adequately monitor China’s unfair economic conduct. At a time of growing global protectionism and the deep uncertainty for the world economy caused by the pandemic, the dispute settlement organization remains crippled even after the challenges posed by the Trump administration.
In an acceptance speech via video link to a largely empty meeting room at the WTO headquarters on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala addressed these challenges, but made a hopeful note about how her leadership could help build a stronger, more relevant, and more inclusive trading system.
“It’s been a long and hard road full of uncertainty, but now a new day is starting and the real work can begin,” she said. “The challenges for the WTO are numerous and tricky, but not insurmountable.”
In a press conference with reporters on Monday, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, your first priorities would include working with other international organizations to create permanent pandemic response rules and move forward on two negotiations on fisheries subsidies and digital trade.
The General Council of the WTO, which includes representatives from all 164 member countries of the group, agreed in a meeting on Monday that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is said to be the next General Manager. As with many other decisions, the organization had to reach consensus on the appointment, which means that no member country could object to the election.
Former director general of the organization, Roberto Azevêdo from Brazil, stepped down in August after announcing in May that he would be leaving a year early. Members of the WTO then considered eight candidates for the position.
By October most countries had their support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala announced. But Trump administration officials continued to express their support for South Korean Commerce Secretary Yoo Myung-hee, saying they believed she had more trading experience, a dead end that left the organization without a leader for several months.
After the Biden administration took office, Ms. Yoo dropped her candidacy and the United States withdrew its support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.