Madame Ngozi: WTO's new DG who is expected to make heads turn in Geneva and beyond

A l'occasion de la journée internationale de la femme, parlons d'une femme remarquable: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Le 1 mars 2021 elle a pris ses fonctions en tant que Directrice de l'Organisation Mondiale du Commerce (OMC). Elle est la première femme et la première Africaine à la tête de l'organisation. Elle fera tourner les têtes à Genève et au-delà.

It occasionally happens that there are public figures one would really like to have a long chat with over a home-made meal but who we are unlikely to ever meet in person. Someone in this category who comes to my mind these days is Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. On 1 March 2021 Dr. Ngozi started her new job as Director-General (DG) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a (renewable) term up to 31 August 2025. She is the seventh DG of the WTO, the first woman and the first African to occupy this important post in these turbulent times. Classified among the top powerful women of the globe, the WTO Member States choose a candidate with a professional background, experience and also personality that is likely to make heads turn during her tenure.

The DG post had become prematurely vacant after the sudden resignation of its former DG in 2020, one year ahead of the end of his term. After several rounds of consultations reviewing the 8 candidates for the job, Dr. Ngozi was recommended for the position since October 2020. Paradoxically, her candidacy did not meet the approval of the Trump Administration that questioned the adequacy of her profile for the job of DG of WTO, contrary to the opinion of the vast majority of WTO’s General Council members. It was not until after the start of the Biden Administration that her candidacy was confirmed, recognizing she has the skills required for the job: leadership and diplomatic skills, solid management experience and being a good communicator.

In the process of electing the «Nr.1’s» of international organizations, there is quite some politics behind the scene. The more prominent and influential the organisation in question is, the more animated becomes the election process. In some cases, the nationality or regional origin of the incumbent is known ex ante. E.g., the World Bank is always headed by an American and the International Monetary Fund by a European. Time will tell if this “rule of the game” can be upheld much longer, as excluding candidates from other countries/regions from such leadership positions.  Usually, individual countries or regional blocs propose and vehemently defend their respective candidate in such races. Being Nigerian and having obtained American citizenship, the support of Dr. Ngozi’s country of adoption came late. It was however wise for WTO’s General Council to postpone decision making on the final selection of their next Nr. 1 until the White House had a new occupant.

Dr. Ngozi is expected to bring a fresh wind to WTO that is mandated to rule trade between countries. She takes on her new job at a complex and critical juncture, as free trade is affected by nationalistic chauvinism, along with challenges related to economic recovery, climate change and equitable access to essential drugs. She is expected to steer the organization towards bringing about tangible results in terms of a more effective and also more equitable functioning of the trading system.  The position of many developing countries in global trade remains marginal. Broadening and deepening the integration of, e.g., the African continent in global trade dynamics is vital. We trust she will be a key factor to this end.

Let there be no doubt about it: if you do not know Dr. Ngozi yet, she is likely to make WTO’s work and its outcomes more visible. Good luck, Madame Ngozi!   

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