New WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes office

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and the first African to become director general of the World Trade Organization, forged her strength through traumas few political leaders could imagine – let alone endure.

Driving the news: In a notable interview with “Axios on HBO” – her first long in-person TV interview since taking the job in March – the MIT-trained economist and development expert spoke of her “near impossible job” and experiences that shaped it. , including the kidnapping of his mother.

The big picture: At the end of our hour-long conversation, Ngozi made a direct appeal to President Biden and Chinese Xi Jinping: “Give the WTO a chance.”

Why is this important: You will be hearing a lot more about Ngozi in the years to come. As she admits, she has undertaken “an almost impossible job” of relaunching the WTO. The institution, which governs the rules of international trade, is seriously broken.

  • Because the organization operates by consensus, the 164 member countries – including the increasingly hostile United States and China – must agree to major reforms.
  • The WTO has not concluded a successful round of trade negotiations for more than 20 years. But it is the only institutional obstacle to uncontrollable trade wars that could easily escalate into more dangerous hostilities.

Details: Ngozi has a different CV than the six men who previously ran the WTO. She grew up during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s and her family fled government troops.

  • As a teenager, she moved to the United States, studied at Harvard, and received a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His colleagues often call him “Dr Ngozi”.
  • She rose through the ranks of the World Bank, had four children and then left behind a comfortable bureaucratic life in Washington, DC, to return to Nigeria to serve twice as Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Between the lines: Many rooted for its success. Others wanted to kill her. In 2012, criminals kidnapped her 83-year-old mother at gunpoint. As she recalled this experience, her voice broke.

  • They did not demand a cash ransom, instead demanding that Ngozi resign as finance minister on live television. She seriously considered quitting, but her father insisted that she stay in her job and eventually the kidnappers released her mother.

More highlights from the interview:

1. On the difficulty of his work: “Yes, you could call it impossible work. But I see the potential to turn around an organization that can really do people good, that can live up to its goal, you know. So maybe I’m a masochist, you know, and I love challenges. “

2. On China, which still claims to be a “developing country” to benefit from special treatment at the WTO: “When the organization was designed, I think there were serious design flaws. It was up to the countries to describe themselves as they wanted.”

3. On America’s slide towards protectionism under Donald Trump and Joe Biden: “I hope that all the countries, China, the United States, will step away and do not fall into a protectionist mood because that is why this organization was created in the first place, to establish rules of the game that would lead to more trade liberalization. “

4. On the question of whether disclaimers of intellectual property would suffice to resolve the global vaccine distribution crisis: “No, no, no, no. I was very clear.… I said that was not enough.”


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