Why Ngozi Okonjo Iweala should lead the WTO


In the coming weeks, the World Trade Organization faces an historic choice. For the first time in its 25-year history, a woman will be named Director-General.

The finalists have been narrowed to two outstanding candidates—Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, and Yoo Myung-hee, the current Minister of Trade in South Korea.

Both women are highly accomplished and well equipped to lead the WTO. Minister Yoo has worked in Korean trade circles for decades.

She is the first woman to hold her position in a country that has successfully transformed its economy. I am certain that if chosen she would reform and strengthen the 164-member global institution.

But Ms. Okonjo Iweala is more suited to the need of the moment when the global economy faces profound uncertainties.

The WTO’s greatest challenge right now is to restore faith in an organization weakened by a power struggle between China and the United States.

Ms. Okonjo Iweala, bringing a fresh perspective that is sorely needed, has the depth of experience and persistence to help both inject new life into the global trading system after its mauling from the COVID-19 pandemic and the multinational credentials to address global divisions in broad and innovative ways.

Ms. Yoo presents herself as a “bridge” candidate, aiming to overcome the divide between the U.S. and China, and also between rich countries and developing nations.

But the Nigerian-born economist and international development expert who was a former Managing Director of the World Bank, as well as having chaired the board of Gavi, the vaccine alliance. has a wider range of contacts and experience that will ensure she can deliver at this crucial time for the international community.

The world is at an inflection point, with free and fair trade near the top of the list.

Trade wars have returned, trading blocs have weakened, and the multilateral approach to addressing trade issues and disputes has waned.

Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders, upended supply chains, and dragged down the world economy at the same time as global warming is taking its toll on society and infrastructure.

A revival of world trade is one of the most important pillars for accelerated growth and sustainable development.

This is true for everyone but especially true in Africa. Given that almost 1 in 4 of the world’s people will be African by 2050, strong and diversified African markets will therefore contribute to strong global markets. Trade is critical.

Ms. Okonjo Iweala combines both an international and an African perspective that will suit these times of extreme stress and inject a new dynamism to help revive the global economy.

Nearly all African countries are still dependent on exports of commodities and extractives, mostly unprocessed. Africa’s economic future will depend upon modernizing those sectors and finding fair global markets to sell high-quality processed foods, fertilizers, and petroleum products.

The African Continental Free Trade Area—delayed due to COVID-19 but still on track to come into effect in 2021—will address Africa’s fragmentation by creating the world’s largest common market. According to World Bank estimates, the trade pact could boost regional income by $450 billion and lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035.

But internal commerce alone, no matter how large, will not be enough to carry African economies into sustainable middle-income status. That will require extensive global investment and trade.

A broader imperative also exists for fostering a prosperous Africa fully engaged in global trade: it is vital to the world’s future peace and prosperity.

Due to its large youth population, Africa needs to generate 20 million jobs per annum over the next 20 years. Some of this job growth will come from services, but the bulk will come from commercialization of agriculture and expanded manufacturing. Those products will seek global markets. If those markets are not fair and transparent, and those 20 million jobs are not created, Africa will not break free of cycles of poverty, migration, and conflict—which will continue to have global consequences in terms of a growing refugee crisis and escalating damage to Africa’s environment.

I’ve known Ms. Okonjo Iweala for many years and can vouch for her tenacity, savvy, and commitment to forging consensus.

Building on her unique African cultural perspective and deep understanding of the international community, I believe Ms. Okonjo Iweala will reinforce the case for the value of the open trade system supported by the WTO’s multilateral role and methodology for dispute solving. This is in everyone’s interest.

Combining her skills as an international civil servant and a national minister of finance minister, along with her roles in private enterprise, civil society, and in addressing health issues and climate change, she will bring an inclusive, problem-solving approach that can help revive world trade at this crucial juncture. 

The author is founder and President of the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) and formerly served during 1995-2005 as the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

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