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WTO formally appoints Okonjo-Iweala as its first female leader

By Bryce Baschuk
Bloomberg News/TNS
Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses at her home in Potomac, MD, near Washington D.C., as she was confirmed as the first woman and first African leader of the beleaguered World Trade Organization, on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

The World Trade Organization selected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the first woman and first African as its leader, tasking the former Nigerian finance minister with restoring trust in a rules-based global trading system roiled by protectionism and the pandemic.

During a virtual meeting on Monday the WTO’s 164 members unanimously selected the 66-year-old development economist to serve a four-year term as director-general.

After withstanding a veto of her candidacy by the now-departed Trump administration, Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm of the Geneva-based WTO at a precarious time for the world economy and just as the organization itself is mired in a state of dysfunction.

She held a previous role as chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization after a public sector career in international finance, including two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister and some 25 years at the World Bank. Her dual U.S. citizenship means she’s also the first American to hold the organization’s top job.

Navigating the growing chasm between China and western nations - who argue that China’s entry into the organization in 2001 failed to transform it into a market economy - will be a key challenge.

China’s delegation to the WTO, in a statement, said “the WTO is at its critical moment and must be able to deliver soon. 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.”

Washington and Brussels have railed against China’s massive subsidy programs, forced technology transfers and the state’s expansive influence over the Chinese economy - policies that they say have collectively resulted in trade distortions that negatively affect the global economy.

During her campaign, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged the necessity of rebuilding trust between the U.S. and China while trying to find areas of common interest. As a candidate she endorsed an ongoing an initiative among the U.S., EU and Japan aimed at developing new disciplines for industrial subsidies, state-owned enterprises and forced technology transfers.

In the near term, Okonjo-Iweala may look for some early wins on issues including:

- A multilateral accord to curb harmful fishing subsidies.

- Negotiations to govern the $26 trillion global e-commerce marketplace, which could reduce cross-border hurdles for U.S. technology companies.

- Addressing the paralysis of the WTO appellate body, the forum for settling international trade disagreements.