Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends the press conferences of candidates for the WTO Director-General selection process, at the headquarters of the World Trade Organization, in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 July 2020. (MARTIAL TREZZINI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

First Woman and First African Selected to Head World Trade Organization

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is poised to become the first woman and the first African to lead the highly influential World Trade Organization (WTO).

Hanna Ziady and Charles Riley from CNN Business have reported that Okonjo-Iweala, who is an an economist and Nigeria’s former finance minister, now has a clear path to becoming head of the World Trade Organization following the decision of South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee to withdraw from consideration for the role. (Official appointment of a new WTO director-general requires the agreement of all WTO members, so Okonjo-Iweala likely won’t be able to assume the role until President Biden has had time to appoint a new trade representative for the U.S.).

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Trade Organization is a global entity with 164 members representing 98% of the planet’s trade markets. According to their mission statement, “The World Trade Organization is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations.” It’s designed to help negotiate trade agreements between countries, helping producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers fairly, safely, and profitably conduct business around the globe.

Ziady and Riley reported that the group “has been without a permanent director general since Roberto Azevêdo stepped down a year earlier than planned at the end of August after the WTO was caught in the middle of an escalating trade fight between the United States and China.”

In an interview with CNN last summer, Okonjo-Iweala said “the WTO needs a leader at this time. It needs a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it’s in.”

“Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the position of managing director,” Ziady and Riley said. “She also chaired the board of Gavi, which is helping to distribute coronavirus vaccines globally, stepping down at the end of her term in December.”

In an article she penned entitled “Trade in the Time of the Pandemics,” Okonjo-Iweala offered hope for the future, saying she believed improved trade and partnership between countries around the planet can help to lead humanity through the aftereffects of COVID-19.

“It may seem counterintuitive, with borders closed and global travel more constrained than any of us can remember,” she wrote, “but trade will help us find a way out of the situation we are in. It is only by working together, by one hand washing the other, that we can chart a way out and through the crisis.”


D.I. Fast Facts


Year the World Trade Organization was first established.



Name of the WTO’s precursor organization. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was created in 1947 when a group of 23 countries decided to band together and improve trade relations between member nations following the impact of World War II.


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