The incoming chief of the World Trade Organization has a reputation for shaking up the guardians of wealth and power that will come in handy in her new role.
During Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s effort to root out corruption during her first stint as Nigeria’s finance minister, opponents of her plans nicknamed her “Okonjo Wahala” — “Okonjo the trouble maker.”
The 66-year-old development economist embraces the moniker and true to form, trouble was what Okonjo-Iweala withstood campaigning for the WTO job. Finding herself on the wrong side of the Trump administration, her lack of trade-negotiating experience made her the target of a unilateral US veto despite the endorsement of the organization’s selection committee and almost all other member nations. Now, with President Biden’s administration’s blessing after the only other candidate withdrew, Okonjo-Iweala is poised to become the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO in its 25-year history. She will also be the first American citizen to hold the organization’s top job. “She is this wonderful, soft, very gentle woman with an authentic approach to problems but, boy, under that soft glove there is a hard hand and a strong will behind it,” ECB President Christine Lagarde said. “She is going to rock the place.”
The WTO badly needs to be shaken up. The Geneva-based trade body is largely dysfunctional and all three pillars of its work are under threat. Its usefulness has been called into question as China’s brand of state capitalism increases its footprint on the global economy, fomenting criticism from Brussels to Brasilia.
The organization has struggled to produce meaningful multilateral agreements, its trade-monitoring function consistently underperforms and former U.S. President Donald Trump neutralised the WTO appellate body in late 2019. With a budget last year totalling $220 million and a staff of more than 600, it has become a toothless bureaucracy during the most disruptive period for international commerce in generations.
Add the pandemic to the turmoil, and the WTO’s most substantive work was ground to a near standstill last year and spurred its previous director-general to quit unexpectedly.
The WTO plans to hold a meeting in the coming days where its members will consider a final decision on Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy. If none of the WTO’s 164 members oppose her, she will be appointed for a four-year term, with a possible four-year extension in 2025.
WTO’s lengthy agenda
Okonjo-Iweala has pledged to find common ground among the trade body’s disparate membership. She hopes to score some early negotiating wins — such as a multilateral accord to curb harmful fishing subsidies — as a means to restore trust and build momentum for larger deals.
An extraordinary life
Okonjo-Iweala graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1976 and earned her doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981.
After moving to Washington, she quickly rose through the ranks at the World Bank and in 2013 was named managing director. “She will bring a different kind of global perspective to the WTO than anyone before her,” former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a phone interview. “She has a global view of challenges and problems and is insightful about solutions.”
A fresh approach
As the WTO’s next director-general, she’s going to need fortitude and persistence.
Among the most significant challenges: undoing the deep level of mistrust between rich economies and those of the developing world. That bad blood has given rise to protectionism -- the antithesis of the WTO’s mission of “open trade for the benefit of all.” “You have developed-country members who believe they have borne the burden of liberalisation -- too much of it -- and that maybe advanced developing countries have maybe not borne enough,” she told Bloomberg in a phone interview. “I’ll be listening to the developed countries, listening to the advanced-developing countries and the least-developed countries and asking ‘Where is there common ground?’”