As we celebrate the achievements of women this month (March) we also welcome Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). By her very appointment, “Dr. Ngozi”, as she is called, has overcome a six-month period when the organization was leaderless. Mr. Robert Azevedo of Brazil, the former Director-General, stepped down early, August 2020, to give the organization adequate time to put in place a new leader before its next Ministerial Meeting. This plan was derailed by the Trump Administration which refused to go with the consensus which had emerged around Dr. Ngozi’s candidacy, leaving the organization without a leader until March of 2021.

Dr. Ngozi now faces other, more entrenched challenges, of which she is well-aware.

“What it (the WTO) needs is someone who has the capability to drive reform, who knows trade and who does not want to see business as usual. And that is me,” she said on the day she was finally confirmed as the next Director-General.

We have written about these challenges, which have resulted in a paralysis of the primary functions of the WTO – negotiation of trade rules and settling disputes that arise with regards to implementation of those rules. Dr. Ngozi seems up to the task, as evidenced by her statement as WTO-DG designate as well as her insightful and thought-provoking discourses on Africa and development issues.

We will follow her path with deep interest. Her term began March 1, 2021 and runs until August 31, 2025, with the possibility of renewal. I am using this post, however, to explore what the reality of being the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO might mean for the organization’s future.

Dr. Ngozi is the first woman to lead the WTO, although not the first woman to lead a major international organization. This reality also means, unfortunately, a great deal of experience in dealing with sexism. Several Swiss newspapers have already had to issue an apology for referring to this accomplished and experienced professional as “an African grandmother”. The apology was issued after UN Women Leaders and 124 Ambassadors in Geneva called out the newspapers for their sexism and racism. Dr. Ngozi has graciously accepted the apology, also using the opportunity to talk about the stereotypes that women face when taking on leadership positions. Having to address these issues requires time and energy that her male predecessors have not had to even think about.

Dr. Ngozi is also the first WTO Director-General from an African country, Nigeria. Her predecessor, Robert Azevedo, was also from a developing country, albeit the emerging and large country of Brazil. The other candidate for the position, also a woman, was the Trade Minister of South Korea. Developed countries typically fight tooth and nail to hang onto the leadership position of those institutions about which they truly care. Could Dr. Ngozi’s leadership be part of a trend that signals decreased interest by developed countries in the organization?

World Trade Organization (WTO)

Perhaps developed countries are increasingly willing to cede leadership of these organizations, so central to their interests, to emerging economies, and to women? The World Bank is currently headed by Mr. David Malpass of the United States, but his immediate predecessor was Mr. Jim Yong Kim of South Korea, the first from what can be classified as an emerging economy, albeit a highly developed one. Ms. Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria is the current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), having succeeded Mme Christine Lagarde of France, the first woman to lead the IMF.

We certainly hope that Dr. Ngozi’s selection is part of this trend. At the same time, as Dr. Ngozi herself notes, it cannot be business as usual. She has to do more than simply be a placeholder or mouthpiece for the interests of developed countries in the WTO. To move the organization out of its current state of paralysis, she will have to find a working balance between the interests of developed countries, accustomed to their way on this stage, and the deep-seated, long-standing grievances of developing countries which believe that the  organization has yet to deliver on its promise of an agenda that can drive development.

In this regard, Dr. Ngozi may have been thrown into the deep end, as this editorial speculates. At the same time, the combination of her deep understanding of members’ development concerns and her 25-year experience at the World Bank (where she rose to the No. 2 position of Managing Director) may also uniquely qualify her to serve as a “bi-cultural mediator” who understands the need for institutional and cultural reform. At the very least, seated at the “head of the table” in her unmistakably African dress, she is a highly visible reminder of just how much the world has changed, and of the need for the WTO to change along with it.

Andrea Ewart

Andrea Ewart

I am a seasoned international trade and customs attorney, and policy adviser for various companies and governments with a demonstrated history of successfully developing and implementing sustainable and dynamic trade programs. I am experienced in creating partnerships with various business-support organizations to drive compliance and growth in the international market.