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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the WTO

Source: IMF, Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Edmunds

Amid the global outbreak of COVID-19, rising protectionism, and trading disputes, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is in a time of comprehensive uncertainty. However, despite the global economic turmoil, a shining light of hope has revealed herself.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first female Director-General of WTO and the first leader from Africa, joins the emergence of distinguished female leaders, impacting the world stage. Accompanying the recent success of Kamala Harris, Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel and other women in leadership, the Harvard and MIT alum is a distinguished leading economist. Having worked as the Finance Minister of Nigeria and Managing Director of Operations at the World Bank, Okonjo-Iweala is a prime success story for all women and minorities around the world. Now, she has been set one of the most crucial tasks in the world today.

The WTO has often been criticised for its inability to patch its fractured system. Furthermore, like many international organisations, it is scrutinised for being at the mercy of the big powers involved.

Suppose Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's 25-year tenure at the World Bank is a representation of her future leadership. In that case, we are likely to see a continued focus on developing nations, ensuring that policies consider each state’s economic disparities. Thus, continuing special treatment for developing nations.

When analysing her career at the World Bank, it is apparent Okonjo-Iweala was the catalyst for many successful World Bank agendas. In particular, during the 2008-2009 World Financial Crisis, she successfully raised 49.3 billion in grants and low-interest credit for the developing countries around the world.

Okonjo-Iweala sharpened her negotiation skills and resolve when battling corruption as the Finance Minister of Nigeria in 2003 and erasing roughly 18 billion dollars of debt. This experience, combined with her African origin, provides her with political neutrality and the capacity to create a shake-up if required.

While most would argue this is excellent, claiming developing status has become a contentious issue as nations are left to self-identify their capacity. This has brought the WTO under pressure from the US and others particularly relating to the validity of China's claim and the special treatment which accompanies it.

However, this item of concern will almost certainly be brushed over as China has stated it will “never agree to be deprived of its entitlement to special and differential treatment as a developing member” in its proposal to the WTO.

Furthermore, the WTO is dealing with the consequences of the US and China trade war. A war in which the previous Trump administration was relatively unwavering in its approach. Consequently, distrust has seeped into otherwise allied nations', causing an even greater divide among the international community.

The newly appointed Biden administration has adopted a lighter tone than the previous Trump administration’s threatening rhetoric, identifying China as the United State’s most prominent competitor. Moreover, the US is seeking to rekindle relationships with its allies, even cooperating with China if it is in the US’ best interest. Combining this with Okonjo-Iweala's comprehensive experience in bringing people together offers a potentially hopeful future for the global trading body.

Nonetheless, substantial reforms are necessary to cement the WTO as an efficient and effective functioning body. Luckily, Okonjo-Iweala has displayed a willingness to implement such reforms in her appearances in the media. "The world needs the WTO", she said in a January 29 interview. "And the WTO needs extensive and serious reform."

Okonjo-Iweala has a strong history of successfully implementing reforms, even in the most challenging circumstances. Yet, she will need to be at her very best to propel the glacial paced WTO in the right direction. An area of primary concern is the WTO's Appellate Body (AB), which Trump had already seriously debilitated by blocking new AB appointments. This was largely due to the perceived injustice regarding the WTO's dispute resolution mechanisms.

However, many other WTO experts, Okonjo-Iweala included, believe the AB may have overstepped its bounds on various occasions. Thus, we can assume she recognises the need to do more than appoint new members to the AB. Instead, she may use her well-honed negotiation skills to address many of the US and its allies’ concerns, which have lingered since the Obama era.

In order to address these growing concerns, Okonjo-Iweala will first need to tackle the vaccine nationalism plaguing the international community. In the last few weeks, wealthy countries have tried to restrict exports of the COVID-19 vaccine to ensure their own supply. However, this form of vaccine nationalism has the potential to cost over 9 trillion dollars to the global economy, let alone the health implications for impoverished countries. To combat vaccine protectionism, Okonjo-Iweala advocates for manufacturing licenses to be issued, guaranteeing developing countries the ability to generate supplies. This proposal helps alleviate many intellectual property concerns that governments have when handing over these vaccines to other countries.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has received compelling support from the new Biden administration, and with China and the European Union already showing their approval, her appointment suggests a somewhat hopeful return to normality.


Benjamin Edmunds is currently completing a Master of International Relations at Monash University. He is interested in Australia-China relations, the political economy of trade policy, cyber affairs, and securing a prosperous future for Australia and the world.



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