March 11, 2021

Okonjo-Iweala makes history as new WTO head

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made history this month as the first woman and first African to serve as director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“Being the first woman and the first African means that one really has to perform,” she said in a February 15 statement. “I take the reins of the WTO at a time of great uncertainty; [it] cannot be business as usual at the WTO.”

The WTO, which comprises 164 members, provides a forum to negotiate new trade rules, monitor compliance with existing agreements, and settle disputes.

“A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement. “I look forward to working with members … to get the global economy going again.”

Born in Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before leading the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala twice served as the finance minister of Nigeria. She also served as managing director of the World Bank and most recently chaired GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. WTO members agreed by consensus to appoint her to be director-general February 15, and she took office March 1.

“Trade is about people,” Okonjo-Iweala said. The question is: “How do we bring those who have been excluded or marginalized — like women, like owners of micro, medium and small enterprises — into the mainstream?”

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