Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed as the next WTO Director-General, making history as the first woman and the first African to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Okonjo-Iweala
Dr Nzozi Okonjo-Iweala

When she takes office on 1 March, Dr Okonjo-Iweala will lead the global organisation and its budget of $220m and staff of 650, at what can only be described as very challenging times.

The World Trade Organization deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible. The WTO has more than 160 members representing 98 per cent of world trade, and there are currently an additional 20 countries seeking to join at the present time.

While it is a pretty big deal that Okonjo-Iweala, is the first woman and the first African to be chosen as Director-General, her remarkable career on the world economic stage means that she will no doubt take this new role in her stride.

“I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General.”

Nigerian Okonjo-Iweala, who is always wearing traditional Nigerian attire, has held numerous notable positions, recently as the chair of Gavi, the vaccine alliance organisation which immunised 66 million and averted the deaths of 1.7 million people in 2018. At the age of 25, she started working for the World Bank, working her way up before eventually becoming its managing director, responsible for overseeing its $81bn (£58bn) worth of operations. She has also served her country Nigeria as its Finance Minister, where she earned the nickname “Okonjo-Wahala” – or Trouble Woman. She told the Guardian in 2005. “It means: ‘I give you hell.’ But I don’t care what names they call me. I’m a fighter; I’m very focused on what I’m doing, and relentless in what I want to achieve, almost to a fault. If you get in my way you get kicked.”

However, this new role as Director General of WTO is the pinnacle of her 40 year career. Following her appointment, Dr Okonjo-Iweala said a key priority for her would be to work with members to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala
Dr Nzozi Okonjo-Iweala
Credit: Peter Hapak for TIME

Speaking about her appointment, she said: “I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General. 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.”

“Let’s get to work on global recovery!”

Her appointment follows months of uncertainty which arose when the United States (under Trump’s presidency) initially refused to join the consensus around Dr Okonjo-Iweala and threw its support behind Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea. But following Ms Yoo’s decision on 5 February to withdraw her candidacy, the administration of newly elected US President Joseph R. Biden Jr. dropped the US objection and announced instead that Washington extends its “strong support” to the candidacy of Dr Okonjo-Iweala.

In a twitter post, Dr Okonjo-Iweala said: “My thanks to these remarkable leaders for expressing their views! The WTO has a critical role to play in making the Multilateral Trading System part of the solution to COVID-19 pandemic, and no time to waste. Let’s get to work on global recovery!”

Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s term, which is renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.

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