Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes over the World Trade Organization on Monday amid hopes that she will spur the beleaguered body into addressing its towering challenges, including the pandemic-fuelled global economic crisis.
“The WTO is too important to allow it to be slowed down, paralysed and moribund,” the first woman and first African to ever lead the global trade body told AFP a day after her nomination last month.
Following a lengthy selection process, development economist Okonjo-Iweala, who spent 25 years at the World Bank, was finally anointed by the WTO’s 164 members on February 15.
From an initial eight candidates, she was the clear favourite among the last two standing in November. However, her appointment was delayed by former US president Donald Trump blocking her nomination.
The arrival of his successor Joe Biden made it possible for her to receive the consensus backing required to end the impasse.
She is hitting the ground running, with her first day on the job in Geneva coinciding with the annual meeting of WTO’s General Council.
Delegates are expected to agree that the organisation’s next ministerial conference, which had been scheduled for last year but was postponed due to the pandemic, will be held in Geneva in December.
The question remains whether the new WTO chief, considered a strong-willed trailblazer, will be able to mould the organisation in her image before then.
While some observers voice hope that Okonjo-Iweala will inject much-needed energy, others stress she has little wiggle room to make dramatic change, given that WTO decisions are made by member states — and only when they can reach consensus.
One of her first tasks will be to nominate four new deputy directors to help recharge the organisation’s negotiating mechanisms.
Okonjo-Iweala has said that one of her main objectives is to push long-blocked trade talks on fishery subsidies across the finish line in time for the ministerial conference, but with negotiations dragging on, that could be a tough sell.
And in the midst of a global economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, she has plenty of other challenges on her plate.
Okonjo-Iweala has voiced concern about growing protectionism and nationalism during the coronavirus crisis and insists trade barriers must be lowered to help the world recover.