Nigerian finance leader Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead WTO 

In a statement late Friday, the Biden Administration expressed its strong support for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,  leading candidate for leader of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The administration has lauded her for he experience at the World Bank and leading Nigeria’s finance ministry, and pledged to work with her on needed reforms.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead WTO upon confirmation

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigerian finance leader Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (International Monetary Fund, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was front runner for the role until former President Donald Trump had blocked her candidacy after a WTO selection panel recommended her as chief in October. He instead wanted another woman for the role, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee.

However, Ms. Yoo has now withdrawn her candidacy, a decision made after consulting with allies including the United States.

“In order to promote the functions of WTO and in consideration of various factors, I have decided to withdraw my candidacy,” Yoo said in a statement. 

With Ms. Yoo withdrawing her candidacy, the WTO members can now begin to conclude the consensus-based process and confirm Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as the next WTO director-general.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said she is looking forward to the conclusion of the race and moving forward with needed reforms.

“There is vital work ahead to do together,” the former World Bank executive said in a statement.

Additionally, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said it is ready to begin working with Okonjo-Iweala, noting that she is “widely respected for her effective leadership and … proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”

In a statement the Biden Administration also said they look forward to working with a new WTO Director General “to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO.”

The administration also pledged a commitment to “positive, constructive and active engagement” on reforms.

Reforms moving forward 

The next leader of the World Trade Organization will have a lot to contend with moving forward. Observers say the leaderless WTO is currently facing the deepest crisis ever in its 25-year history. 

World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

DG selection process 2020- Press conference – Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria (World Trade Organization, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The WTO has gone without a director-general since early August when Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo quit. His new replacement will have to contend with a COVID-induced recession, U.S.- China tensions, and rising protectionism.

The International Chamber of Commerce’s John Denton has urged WTO members to act quickly in selecting a new director-general. 

“With geopolitical tensions high, the global economy in recession and ‘vaccine nationalism’ threatening an equitable recovery, there is now no reason for further delay in filling this critical role with the well-qualified candidate at the ready,” he said.

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Leading candidate, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has previously stressed the need for the WTO to play a role in helping poorer countries with COVID-19 drugs and vaccines — an issue on which members have failed to agree in ongoing negotiations. Future WTO reform will have to address these pressing global issues among others moving forward.