The race for the challenging seat of the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has narrowed down to two eminently qualified women with sound global profiles.
Reuters, a frontline news agency, says three anonymous sources that briefed it that Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee are through to the final round of the selection process.
WTO is shopping for a new director-general to replace Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down a year earlier than expected at the end of August. It aims to find a successor by early November.
With this development, WTO will be led by a woman for the very first time since it was created 25 years ago.
The 53 year-old Yoo is South Korea’s Trade Minister. Reuters says she is pitching herself as an experienced operator on trade in challenging times after clinching deals with the United States, China and others, while supporting global rules.
Before now, Kenyan Sports Minister, Amina Mohamed, Saudi Royal Court Adviser, Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri, and British ex-International Trade Minister, Liam Fox, equally competed in the second selection round. The first round featured eight candidates.
Prospects of Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala emerging WTO’s big boss are bright. Expectations are high for Africa to get a shot at running the organisation which has counted three Director-Generals from Europe, and one each from Oceania, Asia, and South America since its creation in 1995; there is however no requirement for a regional rotation of the Director General’s position.
WTO is an organisation for trade opening, a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements, and a place for them to settle trade disputes. It operates a system of trade rules. Essentially, WTO is a place where member governments try to sort out the trade problems they face with one another.
It was born out of negotiations, and everything WTO does is the result of negotiations. The bulk of its current work comes from the 1986–94 negotiations called the Uruguay Round and earlier negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). WTO is currently the host to new negotiations, under the ‘Doha Development Agenda’ launched in 2001.
Where countries have faced trade barriers and wanted them lowered, the negotiations have helped to open markets for trade. But, WTO is not just about opening markets, and in some circumstances its rules support maintaining trade barriers — for example, to protect consumers or prevent the spread of disease.
At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations. These documents provide the legal ground rules for international commerce. They are essentially contracts, binding governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits.
Although negotiated and signed by governments, the goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business, while allowing governments to meet social and environmental objectives.
The system’s overriding purpose is to help trade flow as freely as possible — so long as there are no undesirable side effects — because this is important for economic development and well-being. That partly means removing obstacles.
It also means ensuring that individuals, companies and governments know what the trade rules are around the world, and giving them the confidence that there will be no sudden changes of policy. In other words, the rules have to be ‘transparent’ and predictable.
Trade relations often involve conflicting interests. Agreements, including those painstakingly negotiated in the WTO system, often need interpreting. The most harmonious way to settle these differences is through some neutral procedure based on an agreed legal foundation. That is the purpose behind the dispute settlement process written into the WTO agreements.
However, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, is a development economist. She has been the Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, since January 1, 2016. She brought more than 30 years of development and financial expertise to the Gavi Board.
She has twice served as Nigeria’s Finance Minister, most recently between 2011 and 2015 – a role that encompassed the expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy. In 2006 she served as Foreign Affairs Minister. She has also held several key positions at the World Bank, including as Managing Director.
Okonjo-Iweala’s experience and expertise are particularly valuable as Gavi strives to ensure that immunisation programmes are financially sustainable. Her strong commitment to finding private sector solutions to development challenges further contributes to Gavi’s mission.
Currently, she is a Senior Adviser at Lazard and serves on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Center for Global Development, among others. She is also the Chair of African Risk Capacity, a specialised agency of the African Union to help member states prepare for and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters.
She was named by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 greatest world leaders in 2015, and by Forbes for five consecutive years as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. In 2014, Okonjo-Iweala was recognised by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
She is the author of several books including Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria, published in 2012.
Okonjo-Iweala graduated with an A.B. magna cum laude in Economics from Harvard University, and holds a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received numerous honours, including Honorary Doctorates
WTO aims to select a winner in November. The Director-General that will emerge in the end, will be taking over an organisation mired in crises, and struggling to help members navigate a severe global economic slump ignited by the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala has said the WTO should play a role in helping poorer countries access COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.