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First Woman and First African Chosen to Head World Trade Organization

Incoming World Trade Organization President (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks during an interview with Reuters in Potomac, Maryland, Feb. 15, 2021.

Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has called her appointment as director-general of the World Trade Organization groundbreaking.

She told members of the General Council that she was eager to begin the work of reforming the organization and modernizing the rules to bring them up to 21st century issues.

“I am grateful for the trust you have in me not just as a woman and an African, but also in my knowledge and experience and, as some of you have said, courage and passion to work with you to undertake the wide-ranging reforms the WTO needs to reposition itself for the future,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

Challenges are many

Okonjo-Iwealea said the challenges facing the WTO were numerous and tricky, but not insurmountable. She said one of her key priorities was to focus on the issue of COVID-19 and what the WTO could do to contribute to solutions.

She said the WTO needs to work with the COVAX and ACT Accelerator facilities as well as with other organizations working to accelerate supplies and vaccines to poor countries.

“We also encourage finding what I call a third way, in which vaccines can be manufactured in many more countries whilst taking care that we do not discourage research and innovation, which is linked to intellectual property rights," Okonjo-Iweala said. "So, this is an area of work."

Trump blocked appointment

Okonjo-Iweala’s selection as WTO chief was held up for many months because former President Donald Trump did not back her and refused to join the consensus regarding her candidacy. The Biden administration dropped the U.S. objection, clearing her way to getting the top job.