Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was on Monday chosen as the next director-general of the WTO, drawing praise from Taipei after the former Nigerian minister of finance promised fair treatment for Taiwan during her tenure.
When she takes office on March 1, she is to be the first woman and the first African to lead the multilateral trade body.
Before her appointment, Okonjo-Iweala maintained close communication with Taipei and the nation’s mission to the WTO, the Central News Agency reported yesterday.
During discussions, she promised to treat Taiwan fairly as WTO leader, the agency said, citing a source familiar with the matter.
A self-declared “doer” with a track record of taking on seemingly intractable problems, Okonjo-Iweala is likely to have her work cut out for her at the trade body, even with former US president Donald Trump, who had threatened to pull the US out of the organization, no longer in the White House.
As director-general, a position that wields limited formal power, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, would need to broker international trade talks in the face of persistent US-China conflict; respond to pressure to reform trade rules; and counter protectionism heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What it [the WTO] needs is someone who has the capability to drive reform, who knows trade and who does not want to see business as usual, and that is me,” she said on Monday.
Earlier, she told Reuters that her top priority would be to ensure the trade body does more to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also expressed confidence that her priorities are aligned with Washington’s.
“I think our interests and priorities are aligned. They want to bring the WTO back to [its] purpose,” she said.
The US delegate said Washington was committed to working closely with her and would be a “constructive partner,” while China’s delegate pledged “full support” for her.
EU Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis said he looked forward to working closely with her to drive “much-needed reform of the institution.”
A 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she oversaw a US$81 billion portfolio, Okonjo-Iweala ran against seven other candidates by espousing a belief in trade’s ability to lift people out of poverty.
She studied development economics at Harvard after experiencing civil war in Nigeria as a teenager. She returned to the country in 2003 to serve as finance minister and backers point to her hard-nose negotiating skills that helped seal a deal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations in 2005.
“She brings stature, she brings experience, a network and a temperament of trying to get things done, which is quite a welcome lot in my view,” former WTO director-general Pascal Lamy said last week. “I think she’s a good choice.”
Key to her success will be her ability to operate in the center of a “US-EU-China triangle,” he said.
The endorsement of US President Joe Biden’s administration cleared the last obstacle to her appointment.
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