Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed director general of the World Trade Organization, making her the first female and first African to lead the global trade body.
Over one hundred and fifty members of the WTO unanimously selected the 66-year-old development economist to take on the four-year term. Okonjo-Iweala told CNN that her first priority was boosting global efforts to fight Covid-19.
“One of … top priorities that I have, that I’m passionate about, is [solving] how can trade and the WTO play a stronger role in bringing solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic, both on the health side but also on the economic side,” she said.
“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” she told Reuters. “Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming. If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blowback. It’s unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology.”
In interview with The Guardian last September, she said the pandemic had problematic trade rules which need to be changed for critical medical breakthroughs to take place around the world.
Speaking to Christiane Amanpour recently, she commented on the need for the 26-year old organisation to reform.
“It feels exciting and it feels daunting at the same time. I look forward to the challenge … deep reforms are needed to rebrand and reposition the organisation.”
The Geneva based organisation she now leads was erected to promote open trading across countries and mandate measure for international trading with its 164 member countries.
The organisation has been without a leader since last August, when Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo stepped down a year earlier than planned, declaring his early departure as one that would permit governments to focus on the June meeting of trade ministers in Kazakhstan this year rather than be disrupted by the process of selecting his successor.
In her interview with CNN, Okonjo-Iweala said despite trade being necessary to economic recovery, managing public health obstacles also called for “good trade.”
“For economic recovery, we need trade. And in order to solve the public health problems we need good trade rules that will allow access and equity for vaccines, and therapeutics and diagnostics.”
Okonjo-Iweala worked as a development economist at the World Bank for twenty-five years before being appointed as its managing director in 2013.
She was Forbes African of the Year in 2020 and ranked as one of the 50 Greatest World Leaders in 2015. Online, Okonjo-Iweala’s supporters, including former International Monetary Fund head christine Lagarde, have congratulated the Harvard University alumni, accompanying their posts with #ankaraarmy — referencing the African print she wears.
Okonjo-Iweala had initially competed for the WTO leadership role with rival candidate, Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea’s trade minister, who a week ago, withdrew her bid.
Okonjo-Iweala will take up her post on March 1.