On February 15, 2021, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was confirmed as the World Trade Organization Director-General. Thus, she became the first woman and first African to lead the WTO, taking effect on March 1.
Now, she will remain in the position for a term until August 2025, overseeing the Geneva-based body with 164 member countries.
“I feel I can solve the problems. I’m a known reformer, not someone who talks about it,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “I’ve actually done it.”
Previously, Okonjo-Iweala was a World Bank economist known for reform and a two-time finance minister in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Until the end of last year, she chaired the global vaccine alliance, GAVI, and holds dual U.S. citizenship, taking effect during the Trump administration.
At GAVI, she oversaw the annual immunization of millions of children.
During her 25 years at the World Bank, she advocated for economic growth and development in poorer countries.
Dawn of a New Day
After South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee withdrew from the race, the WTO General Council agreed it should go to Okonjo-Iweala. To be appointed, all members had to agree.
In particular, she had wide support from China, the European Union, Australia, and Japan. Former President Trump preferred Myung-hee and blocked her appointment. However, President Biden endorsed her candidacy, ending a months-long appointment process.
“It’s been a long and tough road, full of uncertainty, but now it’s the dawn of a new day, and the real work can begin,” Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in her acceptance speech. “The challenges facing the WTO are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable.”
Tackling Inequalities Amid a Pandemic
Upon her appointment, Okonjo-Iweala said a top priority was addressing the inequalities of vaccine distribution worldwide. She refers to this as “vaccine nationalism.”
“I’m looking at WTO rules and how the WTO can make access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics more affordable and accessible for poor countries,” she said. “…So that we don’t have “a phenomenon where rich countries are vaccinating their populations, and poor countries have to wait behind,” she continued.
See more from Guardian News below:
No One is Safe Until Everyone is Safe
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has shown how we are all connected. So, if one country remains unvaccinated, that affects everyone.
“It’s something I don’t think really works,” she said of vaccine nationalism. “The nature of the pandemic and the mutation of many variants makes this such that no one country can feel safe until every country has taken precautions to vaccinate its population,” she said.
Opposed to nationalist ideology, she welcomes working together with other nations.
“We have to think of working together in global solidarity.”
Once she has demonstrated success in tackling the pandemic, she hopes to improve how the WTO serves women. Also, she wants to change how climate change and trade are approached, among more much-needed reforms.
An Interconnected World
If the pandemic has done one positive thing, it has shown how the world is interconnected. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala embraces taking a group approach to solving emerging challenges.
“Given the interconnectedness of the world’s economies, a collective response to current and emerging challenges will always be stronger than individual responses,” Okonjo-Iweala told the WTO General Counsel last fall.
Collective action is part of the wisdom of her Nigerian heritage.
“As we put it in my Igbo language, ‘Aka nni Kwo aka ekpe, aka ekepe akwo akanni wancha adi ocha’ (If the right washes the left hand, and the left hand washes the right hand, then both become clean). This is a call for collective action,” she said.
Growing Up Amid Civil War
As a child, Okonjo-Iweala lived in a small village in Nigeria’s southern Delta State. Her grandmother raised her while her parents studied in Europe on scholarships.
During this time, the violent civil war in the country disrupted her life. However, she feels it prepared her to get things done in life.
“I was eating one meal a day, and children were dying. So, I learned to live very frugally. I often say I can sleep on a mud floor as well as a feathered bed and be very comfortable. It has made me someone who can do without things in life because of what we went through,” Okonjo-Iweala told Forbes magazine last year.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Rise
Tough as nails, she once carried her little sister for three miles to a doctor. After fighting through a crowd, she climbed a window so the 3-year-old could receive treatment for malaria.
Following the war, she traveled to the U.S. to study economics at Harvard and MIT. By age 25, she had married her childhood sweetheart and began work at the World Bank. From there, she rose steadily through the ranks. Then, in 2003, According to The Guardian, Nigeria invited her to become finance minister.
At the time, Nigeria faced enormous debt, but she was determined.
“When I became finance minister, they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or Trouble Woman,” she told the Guardian in 2005. “It means: ‘I give you hell.’ But I don’t care what names they call me. I’m a fighter; I’m very focused on what I’m doing and relentless in what I want to achieve, almost to a fault. If you get in my way you get kicked.”
Reforming the Unreformable
As a result of her skill and determination, she secured relief for her country’s billions of debt. Then, she wrote a book about her experiences called “Reforming the Unreformable.”
Now, she is called one of the world’s 100 most powerful women.
With a focus on fighting corruption, she and her family have faced danger. In 2012, her 82-year-old mother was kidnapped. Fortunately, Kamene Okonjo, a retired professor and former medical doctor, was released five days later.
“…When you fight corruption – when you touch the pockets of people who are stealing money, they don’t just keep quiet; they fight back, “she said. “And the issue for you is when they try to intimidate you, do you give up, or do you fight on? Do you find a way to stay on and fight back? The answer I had is we have to fight on,” she said in her 2016 TED appearance.
With determination, she says it’s up to everyone to fight for a better future, free from corruption and greed.
“We have to find ways to stop these people from taking away the heritage of the future.”
See her discuss “How Africa can keep rising” in the TED video below:
A Fresh Look at Global Challenges
Since its creation in 1995, the WTO has often been criticized, failing to seal a major multilateral trade deal in years. Due to the current rules, all members must agree to move forward, an unlikely proposition at best.
However, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is hopeful she is the right person to effect reforms.
“The WTO needs … a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it’s in,” Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview with CNN.
A popular personality on Twitter with over 1.5 million followers, she has inspired an #ankaraarmy — which refers to the colorful Ankara African print she wears.
It seems if anyone can change the world, it’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and her proud followers worldwide.
Featured images: Screenshots via YouTube