In a world ravaged by COVID-19 pandemic and divided by multilateral interests, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment as the director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has come with daunting tasks. As the first woman and the first African to occupy the position, she is confronting a world that is expecting gender and racial statement.
Her confirmation as the DG of WTO was delayed due to the objection of the past US administration. Former president Donald Trump had questioned her qualification to be at the helm of the international trade organization amidst its much needed reforms.
The Trump administration had been critical of the organization’s handling of world trade, alleging bias toward China, vowing to continue to support Okonjo-Iweala’s opponent, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, as they believed she has the experience to lead the organization and effect the needed changes more than her Nigerian counterpart.
A statement from the US Trade Representative, which advices President Donald Trump on trade policy said Yoo had “distinguished herself as a trade expert and has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization.”
Apart from multilateral conflicts among the members of the organization, there are also irregularities that the United States said are stymieing international trade.
“This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations. The WTO is badly in need of major reform,” US trade rep added.
From conflicting international economic interests, US-China trade dispute, to COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Okonjo-Iweala is inheriting a WTO full of challenges that will put her qualification to the test.
WTO has struggled to maintain conflict-free international trade since it was created in 1995. Recent trade spat between the US and China is a loud example of the organization’s many internal crises. The 164 members have failed to reach consensus on many multilateral trade fronts, particularly, opposing interests of world leading economies.
Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged the need for reform in the organization.
“It feels exciting and it feels daunting at the same time,” she said during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I look forward to the challenge … deep reforms are needed to rebrand and reposition the organization.”
The needed reform is among the reasons it took long for the Geneva-based body to appoint a permanent director-general after Roberto Azevedo abruptly stepped down last year August, creating a-six month leadership vacuum. Trump was counting on Yoo who he believes has the trade experience to steer WTO to the right direction.
In defense of US’ challenge to her trade qualification last year, Okonjo-Iweala said her career spans across many fields including trade.
“I am a development economist and you cannot do that without looking at trade. Trade is a central part of development. So, I have been doing it. My whole career at the World Bank, I was working on trade policy reform in middle and low-income countries at the bank,” she said.
Outside trade, the disparity in vaccine distribution due to alleged hoarding by developed countries has become a concern that needs urgent attention.
Okonjo-Iweala told Reuters in an interview that her priority would be to ensure the organization does more to address the COVID-19 pandemic. She described the disparity as “unconscionable”, urging WTO members to lift export restrictions on medical items.
In her pool of experience as a two-time Nigerian finance minister, a 25-year veteran of the World Bank who worked herself up to the level of managing director. She was also special envoy for the World Health Organization on COVID-19, and the former chair of the board of global vaccine alliance Gavi.
Okonjo-Iweala was globally endorsed for the job, having the support of European Union, China and a host of other countries across continents. Her confirmation has been hailed as the game-changer in the conflict-stricken international trade.
Experts believe her most daunting task will be to bring China and US to the same page. But there are other pressing issues of international interest.
The WTO is yet to reach a consensus on the issue of waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs, because it is opposed by rich countries. There is also the issue of fisheries subsidies that spilled over to 2021, due to the organization’s failure to reach a deal deadline by the end of 2020.
Okonjo-Iweala has described facing the challenge as “Reforming the Unreformable”, making reference to her book about reforming Nigeria’s broken institutions, but added that she can solve the problems.
“I feel I can solve the problems. I’m a reformer, not someone who talks about it. I’ve actually done it,” she had told Reuters.
The Harvard alumnus has won the support of many in and outside the WTO to succeed. Former WTO chief Paschal Lamy described her as “a good choice”, saying she has the experience, network and temperament of trying to get things done.