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Why New WTO Director-General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Is Africa’s Woman Of The Moment
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala makes history as the first-ever woman and African to serve as Director-General of the World Trade Organization. Here are four reasons breaking down what her historic appointment means for women and the future of economic trade policy.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and African Director-General of the WTO. Courtesy of the WTO.
7 minute read

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made history on March 1 by becoming the first woman and African Director-General of the World Trade Organization. The Org delves into four reasons why her new position at the helm of the WTO is so important, particularly for gender equality and trade in Africa.

Huge Milestone for Women Globally

Established in 1995, the WTO aims to foster multilateral relationships and healthy international competition for trade. Its key role is to set down the rules of engagement when it comes to global trade and fairly resolve disputes that may arise. According to Fadumo Dayib, the first female presidential candidate in Somalia, this appointment is, “A validation of African women’s competency and leadership skills, as well as a validation of African women’s excelling despite the systematic hurdles and obstacles facing them.” She went on to say, “The tide is turning in favor of competent women, and it's about time that happened."

Okonjo-Iweala has described “competence,” and not race or gender, as being the defining factor that led to her appointment. She is assuming this position at arguably one of the most challenging times in modern history, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Okonjo-Iweala has a mammoth task ahead of her, which includes realigning the strategic direction for the 164-member organization. Unsurprisingly, Okonjo-Iweala has indicated that her career has not been easy and that she has often faced the glass cliff, a phenomenon where women are only chosen for roles over men in scenarios where there is a higher risk of failure. Looking back at the history of the WTO, gender disparity has been quite apparent. In 2016, there were only three women out of the 20 directors within the organization. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, highlighted in 2017 the urgent need to prioritize gender parity at senior levels of the UN by 2030, as part of attaining goal number five (gender equality) of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

A Remarkable Leadership Track Record In Government And Multilateral Organizations

Given Okonjo-Iweala’s broad skills, she is in a prime position to help revive the WTO and give Africa a voice at the table. Okonjo-Iweala served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria, as well as two months as Minister of Foreign Affairs – the first woman to hold both these positions. Some of her notable achievements during this time included the clearing and write-off of $30B and $18B of Nigeria’s debt, respectively. In an effort to increase transparency and corporate governance, she introduced the practice of publishing each state’s financial budget in newspapers. Similarly, she also helped design a digital management platform that streamlined the financial management and payroll/personnel systems. This subsequently helped reduce corruption and led to the elimination of over 62,000 fake workers, thereby saving the government $1.25B. As Minister of Finance, Okonjo-Iweala played a pivotal role in assisting Nigeria to reach its first sovereign credit rating (Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s) in 2006. Under Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership, Nigeria emerged as the largest economy in Africa.

Okonjo-Iweala started her career at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a development economist for 25 years, later taking on the position of Managing Director of operations from 2007-2011. Tasked with overseeing the World Bank’s $81B operational portfolio across Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia, Okonjo-Iweala also championed a number of drives that supported developing countries during the food crises and financial crises of 2008-2009. As Chair of the International Development Association replenishment program, she drove the initiatives which successfully raised $49.3B in grants as well as low-interest credit for some of the most disadvantaged countries across the globe. Above this, Okonjo-Iweala has won a number of awards, some of the most notable including (but not limited to) being Forbes African of the Year in 2020 and one of Fortune's 50 Great World Leaders in 2015.

A Positive Influence On The Most Prolific Trade Policy In Africa's History

Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment is also of significance in a post-pandemic world, where Africa will be focusing on the development of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an agreement that links 55 countries on the continent and 1.2B people to create a combined GDP of $3.4T. The AfCFTA aims to create a unified vision for Africa’s economic future and has the potential to accelerate trade within Africa by more than 50%. The belief is that AfCFTA can speed up economic recovery post-COVID by promoting investment, industrialization, and job creation in Africa. The continent currently accounts for only 2% of global trade, with only 17% of goods being exported between countries on the continent, in comparison to 59% in Asia and 68% in Europe. In terms of growth percentage, three of the five top growing economies - South Sudan, Benin, and Egypt - are in Africa. Having a WTO chief who is at the forefront of Africa is a necessity to reform trade rules and regulations for the continent to grow sustainably.

Lowering the cost of cross-border trading in Africa is of significant importance, as transport costs currently equate to 50-75% of the cost of retail goods sold in Africa – especially when considering the current need to transport personal protection equipment. The AfCFTA will hopefully facilitate this agenda. The AfCFTA, which promotes multilateral solutions, is aligned to the WTO’s ideals, and we can therefore expect Okonjo-Iweala to actively support the operationalization of the trade pact. There is a feeling that this is now Africa’s time at the table at the WTO, and that she will cheerlead the continent’s agenda.

Africa’s share of global trade has declined from 4.4.% in 1970 to 2.5% today, while Asia has seen a significant increase in its share in global trade — 7.7% to 20% within the same period. Much needs to be done to ensure that the 44 member states from the continent attain the same level of progress in Asia going forward. It could be beneficial to have someone like Okonjo-Iweala, who has experience and understands the fundamentals that could set Africa on a better trajectory from a trade perspective.

An Advocate For Meaningful Economic Participation Of Women

Okonjo-Iweala noted in her opening address at the 2021 WTO Women’s Day Event that women have been overrepresented in sectors that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic – specifically in service and retail, as well as the informal sector, where women make up 58% of employment. During the pandemic, 5% of women lost their jobs compared to an employment loss for men of 3.8%. Female labor share in international trade is still fairly low as well, at only 33% compared to male counterparts.

In closing, she stated: “We cannot expect to make good policy for all members of society if half of the population is not properly and equally represented at the table. Gender equality is a fundamental human rights issue and also an economic empowerment issue. We should all work harder in our respective roles to achieve complete gender equality.”

The hope is that Okonjo-Iweala steering the WTO will act as a symbol for other high-power institutions to appoint women for pedigree roles and lead to a more diverse, inclusive, and representative working environment for the trade industry for women and men alike.

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