Nigerian-born Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is set to become the first woman and the first African to serve as the world’s top trade official — the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) — following the withdrawal of South Korea’s candidate. Six men have served as director-generals since its founding in 1995.
A former two-time minister of finance in Nigeria, and a recently confirmed US citizen, Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years as a development economist at the World Bank.
She is also on the board of social media platform Twitter and has chaired the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is supporting global efforts to equitably distribute the coronavirus vaccine, only stepping down from the role in December 2020.
Okonjo-Iweala, who is being backed for the job by many WTO members (including the European Union, China, Japan, and Australia) was in the running for the job alongside Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister who was backed by the Trump-led US government.
The two-horse race already guaranteed a woman would lead the WTO for the first time ever, but the Trump administration’s support for Yoo meant the selection process was a bit complicated since the selection of a new leader requires all WTO members to agree.
While Yoo says she dropped out of the race after "close consultation" with the US, Okonjo-Iweala’s formal confirmation might have to await until after the US appoints a new trade representative.
The WTO, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland, is tasked with promoting free trade across the globe but the organization has been without a permanent head since Roberto Azevêdo stepped down in August 2020, a year earlier than planned. The WTO was in the middle of an increasingly worsening trade war between the US and China at the time.
The US had been critical of the WTO under the Trump administration and even went as far as undermining it by imposing tariffs on Canada, Mexico, China, and the European Union, meaning Okonjo-Iweala will inherit an organization facing challenges of conflict and disagreement between its members.
"The WTO needs a leader at this time. It needs a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it's in," Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview, according to CNN.
According to the UN, equal participation and leadership of women in political and public life are essential to achieve the Global Goals by 2030, particularly Goal 5 for gender equality. And yet, it highlights, women are “underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide, and achieving gender parity in political life is far off.”
Furthermore, only 21 countries in the world have a woman as their leader and 119 countries have never had a woman as their leader, according to a UN report.
African women are disproportionately affected in the distribution of power, with only 29% representation in deliberative bodies compared to 41% in South and Central Asia — further highlighting the importance of Okonjo-Iweala’s selection for the WTO job.