Former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 66, has been appointed as the next World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General. Her appointment takes effect on March 1, 2020, according to a statement by the WTO posted on Twitter.
The appointment makes her the first Black woman to occupy the global organization. Also, she becomes the first African to occupy the position. WTO members took the decision to appoint her at a special meeting of the General Council, following a selection process that included eight candidates from around the world.
The Nigerian-American economist replaces Roberto Azevêdo as the next WTO Director-General. Azevêdo stepped down as WTO Director-General on August 31, 2020, a year before his mandate was to expire.
The path was cleared for Okonjo-Iweala to become the Director-General after her sole competitor, South Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, dropped from the race on February 5.
“It feels exciting and it feels daunting at the same time. I look forward to the challenge … deep reforms are needed to rebrand and reposition the organization,” she said during an interview with CNN, adding that one of her top priorities “is how can trade and the WTO play a stronger role in bringing solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic, both on the health side but also on the economic side.”
The WTO Director-General job is selected by consensus and so when former US President Donald Trump refused to back her, the process was stalled. Following the change of government in the US, a new administration led by Joe Biden renewed the hopes of many that for the first time, an African would lead the WTO. Indeed, this was evident when a group of former US government officials urged the Biden administration to back Okonjo-Iweala, who is also a US citizen.
Okonjo-Iweala’s vast experience makes her suitable for the job. Besides serving as Nigeria’s finance minister, she also served as a Managing Director of the World Bank where she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia.
Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during both the food and later financial crisis. She has chaired the replenishment of over $40 billion for the International Development Association (IDA), the grant, and the soft credit arm of the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation wrote.
“Her achievements as Finance Minister garnered international recognition for improving Nigeria’s financial stability and fostering greater fiscal transparency to combat corruption. In October 2005, she led the Nigerian team that negotiated the cancellation of 60% of Nigeria’s external debt ($18 billion) with the Paris Club,” the Foundation said.
She was educated at Harvard and has a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Okonjo-Iweala is the recipient of numerous awards, including Honorary Doctorates from Trinity College, Dublin, Brown University, and Amherst College, among others. She is the recipient of Time magazine’s European Hero of the Year Award, 2004, for her work on economic reform in Nigeria among many other recognitions.