In a historic move, the World Trade Organization has chosen the first woman and first African to lead the organization.
Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was named director-general of the WTO Monday by representatives of the 164 countries that make up the organization.
Okonjo-Iweala said during an online news conference Monday that she was eager to begin the work of reforming the organization and modernizing the rules to bring them up to 21st century issues.
“I am grateful for the trust you have in me not just as a woman and an African, but also in my knowledge and experience and, as some of you have said, courage and passion to work with you to undertake the wide-ranging reforms the WTO needs to reposition itself for the future,” she said.
COVID-19 vaccine a priority
She said one of her key priorities is to focus on the issue of COVID-19, including working with the COVAX and ACT Accelerator facilities to speed up supplies and vaccines to poor countries.
“We also encourage finding, what I call a third way, in which vaccines can be manufactured in many more countries whilst taking care that we do not discourage research and innovation, which is linked to intellectual property rights. So, this is an area of work,” she said.
Appointment blocked by Trump
Okonjo-Iweala’s selection as WTO chief was held up for many months because former U.S. President Donald Trump did not back her, arguing that she lacked direct trade experience compared to other candidates.
The Biden administration dropped the U.S. objection, clearing the way for Okonjo-Iweala to getting the top job.
The Nigerian economist is a 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she advocated for economic growth in poorer countries. She rose to the No. 2 position of that organization, where she helped to oversee $81 billion in development financing for Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.
In 2012, she campaigned unsuccessfully for the top position at the World Bank, challenging the traditional practice that the organization is always headed by an American.
Severed as Nigeria finance minister
Okonjo-Iweala has also served as Nigeria’s finance minister and helped to broker a deal in 2005 to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations.
She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said Okonjo-Iweala’s election to head the WTO brought “more joy and honor to the country.”
Okonjo-Iweala said Monday that the challenges facing the WTO were numerous and tricky, but not insurmountable.
In addition to tackling the economic challenges surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the new WTO head will also need to face long-standing trade issues that have divided many nations, including the U.S.-China trade conflict and pressure to reform trade rules.