The World Around Us
February 23, 2021
WTO gets first African and female boss

Roughly one week ago, the World Trade Organization (WTO) confirmed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its new Director-General (DG). Dr. Okonjo-Iweala previously had a 25-year stint as a development economist at the World Bank and she eventually rose to the rank of Managing Director, the Bank’s second highest position.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is an international development expert par excellence, and apart from her work at the World Bank, she has also served on the boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and the African Risk Capacity. She also distinguished herself as finance minister of Nigeria (2003–2006, 2011–2015), Africa’s most populous country and largest economy.

In becoming the DG of the WTO, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is achieving two firsts – the first African and the first woman to head the global trade policy body. She now joins the esteemed company of other Africans who are leading major global bodies at this time such as Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian DG of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Mr. Makhtar Diop of Senegal who was recently selected to lead the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector financing arm of the World Bank.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is also in the venerated company of other female heads of major regional and global bodies, such as Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank and formerly Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission; Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF; and Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the Jamaican currently leading the International Trade Centre.

Of course, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s ascent to the WTO’s summit carries significant symbolism. First, as was the case with other Africans such as Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian who spent nearly a decade heading the United Nations, it reinforces the idea that Africans and people of African descent are just as capable as anyone else of global leadership. Second, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is proof that women, and particularly black women, are no less capable of leadership than their male or non-black counterparts, respectively.

Another important aspect of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s and other non-white persons scaling the heights of global leadership is what it means for the reform of the multilateral system. Indeed, greater racial and gender diversity in the leadership of global bodies must also be part of the reform of multilateralism that many agree is badly needed.

Apart from the symbolic aspects associated with the new WTO DG designate, there is also real work required to reform and modernize the global body. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is inheriting an organization and by extension a multilateral trading system which is dogged by an increase in global protectionism; a broken dispute settlement system; and a pedestrian approach to discharging its negotiating function.

Many small developing countries also continue to harbour concerns that the multilateral trading system is skewed in favor of the wealthy nations. For example, the demise of the banana industry in the Windward Islands is often blamed on the WTO. This came about after a group of Central American countries, with the support of the United States (US), challenged the preferential access that the European Union was granting to banana producers in the Windward Islands and other Caribbean countries. Once the EU reformed its import regime for bananas to grant the same preferences to other developing countries, many Windward Islands banana producers simply could not compete. This is not the WTO’s fault per say, nonetheless, the perception exists.

There is also the matter of Antigua and Barbuda still awaiting compliance from the US after winning a successful judgement against it at the WTO over 15 years ago. Without a doubt, these are the kinds of developments which undermine confidence in multilateralism.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has the opportunity and no doubt the skills, mindset and gravitas to engineer meaningful reforms at the WTO which will have the effect of restoring confidence in the multilateral trading system. Such reforms should ideally include mending the dispute settlement system; strengthening the developmental aspects to make them more accessible to developing countries; bolstering the rules with a view to dissuade protectionism; and ensuring that the negotiating function of the organization is robust and development friendly.