WTO gains new chief but deep issues remain

Nigerian economist has backing of US but still set to face hurdles in role as world's trade arbiter

Dr Okonjo-Iweala is a development economist who spent 25 years working at the World Bank, including as managing director, and served two terms as Nigeria's finance minister, as well as the country's foreign affairs minister. She is a US citizen and s
Dr Okonjo-Iweala is a development economist who spent 25 years working at the World Bank, including as managing director, and served two terms as Nigeria's finance minister, as well as the country's foreign affairs minister. She is a US citizen and serves on the boards of Twitter and Standard Chartered.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian economist and former finance minister, was picked yesterday as the first woman and first African to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO), when the members of the global trade body met.

Her appointment as director-general removed a key obstacle to the functioning of the WTO, which has been leaderless at a time of growing protectionism and global economic upheaval brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

All members of the WTO's top decision-making body, the General Council, agreed on her appointment in a virtual meeting which had just one agenda item, they said. The WTO subsequently confirmed the choice.

"A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic," the 66-year-old economist said in a statement.

She added: "I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.

"Our organisation faces many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today."

But even with Dr Okonjo-Iweala at the helm and the renewed support of the Biden administration, the WTO, which was founded in 1995 to ensure that trade flows as smoothly and freely as possible, will face steep challenges surrounding its effectiveness as the world's trade arbiter.

Trade negotiations, including an effort to restrain harmful subsidies given to the fishing industry, have dragged on without resolution.

A key part of the organisation for settling trade disputes, called the appellate body, remains crippled after the Trump administration blocked appointments of new personnel.

And there are deep divisions over whether rich and poor countries should receive different treatment under global trade rules.

There is also growing consensus that the WTO has failed to police some of China's worst economic offences, which many in the United States consider the world's biggest trade challenge today.

And there is deep uncertainty about whether the group can be overhauled to address those shortcomings.

"There are a lot of issues that are begging for reform," said Ms Wendy Cutler, a former US trade negotiator and a vice-president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

She said the Biden administration's support for Dr Okonjo-Iweala could be "an easy way to gain goodwill and get everyone focused on the important substantive issues".

Dr Okonjo-Iweala is a development economist who spent 25 years working at the World Bank, including as managing director, and served two terms as Nigeria's finance minister, as well as the country's foreign affairs minister.

She is a US citizen and earned her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She serves on the boards of Twitter and Standard Chartered and is an adviser to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The Trump administration spent the past four years criticising or ignoring the WTO, and carrying out prominent US trade policies outside the WTO boundaries. President Joe Biden has criticised Mr Trump for alienating allies and weakening the multilateral system, and is expected to make the US a more active player in international groups.

On Feb 5, the Biden administration announced it would support Dr Okonjo-Iweala, reversing efforts by the Trump administration to block her candidacy. WTO's then director-general Roberto Azevedo had announced last May that he would leave the job a year early and departed in August.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2021, with the headline 'WTO gains new chief but deep issues remain'. Subscribe