“If I want to really make Africa and women proud, I have to produce results.”
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s is the WTO’s newly appointed 7th Director-General. She is the first African to take over the post, as well as the first woman. But who is she really, and what changes can be expected under her leadership?
Okonjo-Iweala was born on June 13th, 1954 in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Nigeria. Her father was a professor, and she attended the International School of Ibadan until the age of 13, when the Nigerian-Biafran War forced her family, which belongs to the persecuted Igbo ethnicity, to flee their home and leave everything behind. But this did not stop her. In 1973, at the age of 19, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala moved to the US, where she graduated magna cum laude in economics at Harvard University. Five years later, she received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Today, in interviews and presentations, one cannot help but notice Ngozi Okonio-Iweala’s driven optimism and earnestness. The look in her eyes is austere and focused. Her speech is equally so, answering questions precisely and always on the search for solutions. Looking back at a journey of highly important positions in economics and politics, accompanied by an impressive list of projects and achievements, it seems that in Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s life, not a second has gone to waste.
The mother of four worked 25 years as a development economist for the World Bank, working her way up to the position of second Managing Director of Operations. The former first Nigerian female Finance and Foreign Affairs Minister participated in a variety of projects empowering development, realizing reforms and fighting corruption. Her tasks ranged from eliminating 1$8 billion of Nigeria’s debt to chairing the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. Her list of accomplishments is long, but no success stories have been written without setbacks. She has faced criticism at home due to her repeal of $8 billion worth of fuel subsidies – oil the country’s most important source of revenue.
From March 2021 and onwards, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala faces the urgent task of reforming the World Trade Organization. The organization is currently dealing with three main issues: Disputes overfishing subsidies, calls to reform the Dispute Settlement Body, and the COVID-19 pandemic. In tackling these challenges, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has emphasized the need to switch from a solely trade-oriented approach to a focus on community and reform. In an official hour-long WTO interview, she stressed her belief in the strength of soft power to reawake the members’ belief in mutual gains through trade. Especially in the current pandemic, Okonjo-Iweala sees opportunity in a crisis. Cooperating with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Trade Organization wants to distribute vaccines to developing countries while simultaneously redefining its purpose on the international stage to become an active player in matters other than trade. In the words of the new Director-General, “We are not going to do business as usual.”