The World of International Organizations

Okonjo-Iweala to head WTO with U.S. backing

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at London's U.K.-Africa Investment Summit in January (AN/DFID)

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is poised to become the next director-general of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization after clinching the “strong support” of the United States on Friday, prompting her chief rival to withdraw from the race.

A Nigerian-American development economist with high-level management experience at several global oganizations, Okonjo-Iweala will smash WTO’s glass ceiling after she is confirmed later this month as its first woman and first African to head the 164-nation global trade body, which is not part of the United Nations system. Her four and a half year term will begin on March 1.

Her impressive résumé includes a stint as chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a seat on Twitter’s board and 25 years with the Washington-based World Bank, where she rose to the No. 2 position of managing director. She served two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister and one term as its foreign minister, the first woman to hold those posts.

The Nigerian-born overachiever, who recently obtained American citizenship, is a Harvard and MIT-educated economist and international development expert, married to a neurosurgeon husband, and mother to their four Harvard-educated children.

With U.S. backing from President Joe Biden’s new administration, she gained the edge in the WTO race over South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, a former South Korean ambassador to WTO in Geneva who also has strong credentials and connections to the United States. Yoo has a bachelor’s degree in English literature, a law degree from Vanderbilt University and is qualified to practice law in New York.

Okonjo-Iweala’s selection is “fantastic news” and she will be “a tremendous leader for WTO,” said Scott Morris, a senior fellow at Center for Global Development, an anti-poverty think tank in Washington and London. He said the new administration “deserves credit for continuing to build back U.S. credibility with America’s allies with this decision. Truly a win-win.”

A ‘widely respected’ leader

The position at the helm of the global trade organization, which began operations in 1995, has been vacant since the end of August last year when Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil stepped down due to a “personal decision” to leave the job a year earlier than planned.

Under former President Donald Trump’s administration, the United States upended WTO’s selection process by choosing Yoo over Okonjo-Iweala — despite Okonjo-Iweala’s U.S. passport. Trade diplomats usually select WTO’s leader by consensus, allowing any one nation to obstruct the process. But after Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office on January 20, the newly constituted U.S. Trade Representative’s office came out in favor of Okonjo-Iweala.

“The Biden-Harris administration is pleased to express its strong support for the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general of the WTO,” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which develops and coordinates policy within the president’s team, said in a statement. “She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”

Biden’s nominee for U.S. trade representative, American lawyer Katherine Tai, has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The office she is nominated to lead, however, also noted it was “particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of WTO director general — the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution.”

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