Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becomes the first woman to lead World Trade Organization

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In a historic move, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has chosen the first woman and first African to lead the organization. Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was named director-general of the WTO by representatives of the 164 countries that make up the organization. Iweala takes up the position at a time when the global economies are dealing with the post-pandemic blow. Her appointment also corresponds with WTO facing criticism over the negative ramifications of globalisation and capitalism on the developing world.

Okonjo-Iweala said during an online news conference that she was eager to begin the work of reforming the organization and modernizing the rules to bring them up to 21st century issues.

“I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General,” said Dr Okonjo-Iweala. “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. 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.”

“I am grateful for the trust you have in me not just as a woman and an African, but also in my knowledge and experience and, as some of you have said, courage and passion to work with you to undertake the wide-ranging reforms the WTO needs to reposition itself for the future,” she said.

The Nigerian economist is a 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she advocated for economic growth in poorer countries. She rose to the No. 2 position of that organization, where she helped to oversee $81 billion in development financing for Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. In 2012, she campaigned unsuccessfully for the top position at the World Bank, challenging the traditional practice that the organization is always headed by an American.

She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Previously, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala twice served as Nigeria’s Finance Minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and briefly acted as Foreign Minister in 2006, the first woman to hold both positions. She distinguished herself by carrying out major reforms which improved the effectiveness of these two Ministries and the functioning of the government machinery. As a development economist and Finance Minister, Dr Okonjo-Iweala steered her country through various reforms ranging from macroeconomic to trade, financial and real sector issues. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the seventh Director-General of the WTO. She took office on 1 March 2021, becoming the first woman and the first African to serve as Director-General. Her term of office will expire on 31 August 2025.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.