Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks to a journalist in Geneva, on July 15, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini—AFP/Getty ImagesBY JUSTIN WORLANDFEBRUARY
On its surface, the mandate of the World Trade Organization is relatively circumscribed: to make and enforce the rules of the road for global trade and resolve problems when they arise.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has much loftier goals for the organization she is expected to take the helm of next week—the first woman to ever hold the position of WTO director-general. She tells TIME that global trade can help ease the COVID-19 pandemic, tackle climate change and restore faith in the system of cooperation that has faltered in recent years. The WTO has a central role to play as facilitator, Okonjo-Iweala says. “If the WTO did not exist,” she says, “you would have to invent it.”https://28ccb63e8c18a44ea6bc3ebc807ac5ca.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?n=0
But to get the WTO to a place where it can execute on that agenda will take some work. And the only way to get the WTO back on track, she says, is to remake the institution. “The world needs the WTO,” she said in a Jan. 29 interview with TIME over Zoom. “And the WTO needs extensive and serious reform.”
Okonjo-Iweala was born in Nigeria in 1954, then under British colonial control, and received her primary education there before coming to the U.S. to study, first as an undergraduate at Harvard and later a PhD student at MIT. She worked in the U.S. after graduating, addressing the challenges posed to economies in the Global South while working as a development economist at the World Bank. In 2003, she began a three-year stint as Nigeria’s finance minister; she returned again to reprise that role in 2011. In Nigeria, she earned a reputation as a corruption fighter as well as an artful dealmaker, helping negotiate a write off of $18 billion in national debt. Since then she’s been a fixture on the international stage, speaking frequently on issues like climate change, public health and global development.
It’s in part this experience in the U.S. and Nigeria—she describes herself as “someone who has lived both realities”—that Okonjo-Iweala and her supporters say makes her well-suited to run the WTO in this particular moment. “There’s much mistrust within the WTO: it’s not just between the U.S. and China. It’s between the U.S. and Europe; it’s between Europe and China; it’s between developing and developed countries,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “Bridging the gap among all these groups, I think, is something that I can really bring.”
Okonjo-Iweala’s accession to the top spot at the WTO follows a long and winding process. The previous head stepped down in August, and Okonjo-Iweala emerged as the favorite of the organization’s 160-plus member states in October. Still, the Trump Administration unilaterally blocked her candidacy, one of a series of actions from the former president that stymied the organization. On Feb. 5, Biden trade officials expressed “strong support,” and Okonjo-Iweala became the presumptive next WTO director-general.