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Economist, Nigerian princess: Meet the WTO’s new leader

·5-min read
Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala look on July 15, 2020, in Geneva, following her hearing before World Trade Organization 164 member states' representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as Director General. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has appointed Nigerian economist and international development expert Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its new leader in a move that has made history on two accounts: first, that she is a woman, and secondly, that she is African.

She replaces Roberto Azevêdo, who has been at the helm of the WTO since 2013, and will take office on 1 March.

The 66-year-old’s appointment has been described by WTO general council chair David Walker as “a very significant moment” for the international organisation, whose role is to ensure that global trade flows as smoothly and freely as possible.

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Okonjo-Iweala has also said her foremost priority as the new Director-General will be the recovery from the global economic and health challenges created by the pandemic.

"A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

“I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.”

And, in a tweet about her appointment, she declared things would not be ‘business as usual’.

Okonjo-Iweala will take the helm of a WTO which has been rendered essentially powerless to solve disputes following a Trump administration ruling preventing new judges from being appointed.

Officials from the European Union, the US and Australia have called for the WTO to be reformed – and it appears Okonjo-Iweala wants to do just that.

“The WTO appears paralyzed at a time when its rule book would greatly benefit from an update to 21st century issues such as ecommerce and the digital economy, the green and circular economies,” she has said.

Who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala?

If you’ve never heard of her until recently, here’s a glimpse of her incredible background and what she intends to focus on in her new position as Director-General.

She’s a princess that went to Harvard and MIT

Her father, Ifechukwude Chukwuka Okonjo II, is the Obi – or king – of Ogwashi-Uku, a small kingdom of around 50,000 based in Delta in the south of Nigeria.

She was also an excellent student: she arrived as a teenager in the US to study at Harvard University, and graduated magna cum laude in economics in 1976.

Okonjo-Iweala went on to get a PhD in regional economics and development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), meaning her correct title is doctor.

She has a long list of accolades, such as being named Forbes’ African of the Year (2020), being ranked as one of the world’s 100 most influential people multiple times by Forbes, Time and the UK Guardian, winning the People’s Choice Award (2020) of Nigeria newspaper This Day, and receiving 16 honorary degrees from other Ivy League universities.

She spent 25 years at the World Bank

Okonjo-Iweala had a career spanning more than two decades climbing the ranks at the World Bank. Between 2007 and 2011, she held the organisation’s second-most senior position of managing director of operations.

In this position, she oversaw US$81 billion in development financing in Africa, South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia.

She also served as Nigeria’s finance minister – twice, first between 2003 and 2006, and again between 2011 and 2015 – and also made history here by being the first woman to hold that office and being the first woman to do so twice.

She’s not afraid of sleeping rough

Literally. Okonjo-Iweala experienced Nigeria’s civil war as a teenager, when her family lost all their savings.

“I can take hardship. I can sleep on the cold floor anytime,” she told the BBC in a 2012 interview.

Okonjo-Iweala goes global

Even before she was appointed to the position, the WTO’s new leader already had a packed schedule.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala holds several advisory and board positions. One of the most prominent ones include chairing GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, which has immunised 580 million children globally and saved 8 million lives since it was created in 2000.

She’s also been appointed to an external advisory group to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and is African Union’s special envoy to attract international support for dealing with COVID-19’s impact on the African continent.

She has been part of UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education since 2019, and also co-chairs the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate.

She’s also on the board of Rockefeller Foundation, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Harvard University, the Oxford University Martin School Advisory Council, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking, the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders Foundation, the International Commission on Financing Global Education, and more.

And, in between doing all of this, she’s raised four children with her neurosurgeon husband.

And finally: How do you pronounce her name?

According to online pronunciation websites, her name is pronounced ‘En-GO-zi Oh-KON-jo Ee-way-a-lah’.

–With AP

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