Women in power — the World Trade Organization's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Director General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Starting a new job is always daunting. For Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who just weeks ago started a new stint as director general at the World Trade Organization, the timing could not be more trying: she is taking over the world's largest global trade body amid once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises that have emboldened protectionist inclinations around the world.

Who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and how has her worldview shaped her politics and policymaking?


Nigerian trailblazer. "Investing in women is smart economics, and investing in girls, catching them upstream, is even smarter economics."

As Nigeria's first female finance minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) under presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, Okonjo-Iweala oversaw sweeping financial reforms that helped stabilize the country's volatile economy. Indeed, her leadership was crucial in ensuring $18 billion in debt forgiveness, helping Nigeria secure its first-ever sovereign debt rating. She also pioneered a program that culled "ghost workers" from the civil service's payroll, saving around 163 billion naira ($398 million) over two years.

Okonjo-Iweala also started the privatization of state sectors like power, though that process has since proven to exacerbate problems, resulting in spotty power supply and price increases for the country of 200 million people. Additionally, though Okonjo-Iweala tackled corruption by making states report their accounts, failed attempts to diversify the country's economy, a stated aim of Okonjo-Iweala and the Jonathan government, has left Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer, vulnerable to the shocks of global oil markets.

Central to her economic outlook is the belief that the political and economic fruition of Nigeria — and that of other African countries — is contingent on better integration of women into all areas of political and economic life. Though many Nigerian women have become influential entrepreneurs, she notes, lack of education opportunities for women and girls in the country's north have impeded development and growth (a crisis exacerbated by the deteriorating security situation in northern Nigeria over the past decade.)

It's worth noting that Okonjo-Iweala paid a personal price for her reforms and crackdown on corruption in the oil industry: In 2012, her 82-year old mother was kidnapped by bandits demanding the finance minister's resignation — and cash. Okonjo-Iweala refused to resign and her mother was eventually released safely (though details remain unclear).

African representation. "The low-income countries in Africa and elsewhere are some of the most rapidly growing economies in the world. These countries ought to be given more of a voice."

In Nigerian politics, as well as during her 25 years at the World Bank (she rose to managing director), and now at the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala has always emphasized that African nations, as well as other emerging markets, are some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. (Before oil prices fell sharply in 2016, Nigeria's economy was growing steadily at 6.3 percent.) Pointing to the fact that many frontier economies in Africa and Asia were the engines of the world's economic revival in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2009, Okonjo-Iweala says that African nations should be given more voice in global forums where important international decisions are made.

It's precisely this outlook that Okonjo-Iweala — who until recently was also chair of the GAVI board which aims to boost vaccine access in the developing world — plans to bring to her tenure at the WTO. In recent months, Okonjo-Iweala has lobbied against "vaccine nationalism," and she's advocated for using WTO intellectual property rules to expand vaccine development and manufacturing in developing countries. She has pointed to licensing deals like the one struck with India's Serum Institute that allows it to produce AstraZeneca's vaccine as a model — a view shared by many leaders, including South Africa's President Cyril Ramphosa who recently said that rich countries were practicing "vaccine apartheid" by blocking emerging markets from manufacturing vaccines on their home turf.

The importance of symbolism. Many media reports have focused on Okonjo-Iweala's bonafides as the first African and first woman to head the WTO after almost seven decades (the WTO emerged from the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). That's a reductive way of looking at Okonjo-Iweala's accomplishments, but her appointment as WTO chief at this tumultuous moment in its history is indeed an historic breakthrough for African women, who see their own social and professional prospects boosted by her accomplishments. As one Nigerian academic recently said, "[Her] achievement is not just a day's work. It's a kind of investment that she has nurtured for a long time."

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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