On Feb. 15, 2021, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) General Council selected the WTO’s seventh Director-General. They chose Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-American.
Born in 1954, Iweala arrived in the United States to study economics at Harvard University, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Economics degree in 1976. She then studied at MIT, where she earned her PhD in Regional Economics and Development with a thesis on Nigeria’s agricultural evolution, published in 1981.
Iweala went on to work at the World Bank’s Washington DC branch, initially as developmental economist. There her most notable achievement was pushing forward various initiatives to help developing countries during the financial crisis of 2008.
After bouncing between various economic bodies, both national and international, Iweala was nominated by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari as a candidate for the Director-General of the WTO, with her main opponent being Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea. On Feb. 5, Myung-hee dropped out of the race for Director-General, leaving Iweala as the top choice, with backing from the European Union and the Biden administration. The WTO General Council conceded the vote to her; Iweala takes office on March 1.
Iweala has already stated some of her goals as head of the WTO, namely distributing COVID-19 vaccines to developing nations, and to avoid “vaccine nationalism,” or when developed nations prioritise vaccinating their relatively healthy populations, instead of vaccinating the most vulnerable worldwide.
“WTO members have a further responsibility to reject vaccine nationalism and protectionism. They should rather intensify cooperation on promising new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. There should be a ‘third way’ to broaden access through facilitating technology transfer within the framework of multilateral rules,” Iweala said in her statement to the WTO.
Iweala’s term ends in Aug. 2025. What she does in the next four years and how she navigates the WTO through the coronavirus crisis will be subjects that economists and politicians will analyze for years to come.