Two Women Make Historic Bid to Lead World Trade Organization

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Korea’ Yoo Myung-hee announced as top contenders

WTO has narrowed down the list for the next Director-General to two women: Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Republic of Korea'sYoo Myung-hee. Image Source: WTO

For the first time ever in its 25-year history, a woman will lead the World Trade Organization that is composed of 164 member nations and 24 observer governments.

The WTO has narrowed down the list to two women from a shortlist of eight candidates who will take over the leadership of Director-General Roberto Azevedo who stepped down from the position on August 31 after earlier making an announcement on May 14 that he would be leaving a year earlier than his expected mandate.

WTO members had narrowed the field of candidates to be the next Director-General as General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand and his co-facilitators in the selection process announced Thursday (October 8)  that the two candidates advancing to the third and final round of consultations will determine the successor to Roberto Azevêdo.

The two top contenders for the Director-General position are Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee.

WTO members from September 24 to October 6 expressed preferences on five remaining candidates during consultations with Amb. Walker, Amb. Dacio Castillo of Honduras and Amb. Harald Aspelund of Iceland.

The position of the WTO Director-General is crucial at a time when the organization aimed at regulating international trade between nations amid growing tensions and an escalating trade war between major economies like the United States and China.

The WTO was established on January 1, 1995, under the Marrakesh Agreement, signed by 123 nations on April 15, 1994, replacing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade with the aim of promoting open trade for the benefit of all. The WTO is the world’s largest international economic organization.

First woman to lead the World Trade Organization

The selection of the new Director-General is quite historic as it assures that the 7th Director-General will become the first woman to lead the organization.

According to her biography posted at the WTO website, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria is a global finance expert, an economist, and an international development professional for over 30 years. She is currently the Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, who is also a US national, also served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and briefly acted as Foreign Minister.

She is going to be the first African once chosen as Director-General. She also had a 25-year career at the World Bank.

In her statement at the General Council, she said the world needs a ‘reinvigorated’ WTO claiming the challenges that beset the organization did not start with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

 “Since 1995, the negotiating function of the WTO has not produced many results and although there have been some successful agreements, key areas like agriculture remain stuck. The WTO appears paralyzed at a time when its rule book would greatly benefit from an update to 21st-century issues such as e-commerce and the digital economy, the green and circular economies. Issues of women and trade and Micro Small and  Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are important to ensure greater inclusion. Bridging the digital divide to enable Least Developed Countries and other developing countries to participate will be key,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

Meanwhile, the other top contender for the top post at the WTO is South Korea’s current trade minister Yoo Myung-hee. She is the first female trade minister of the Republic of Korea and started her career in 1995 just when the organization was formed by taking part of WTO affairs in the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy.

In her biography submitted at the WTO, a skillful negotiator and strategist, Ms. Yoo has been involved in trade negotiations between her country and countries like the Free Trade Agreements with the United States and China. She has also led bilateral FTA negotiations with countries like the UK, the European Union, other ASEAN countries like Singapore, and India.

In her statement before the General Council, Ms. Yoo said the WTO is at a ‘crossroads’ with the broader trade environment undergoing fundamental shifts and many questioning the relevance of the multilateral trading system.

“We are now witnessing the threat of growing protectionism, and heightened trade tensions. Technological advances are transforming the way we produce, deliver, and consume goods and services in ways never imagined when the WTO was created. The global crisis induced by the pandemic is challenging the WTO’s purpose of ensuring the smooth flow of goods and services,” Yoo said.

She also said the 164-member organization is now facing a ‘trust deficit’ with all three of its pillars under stress. She adds the organization needs to be ‘relevant, resilient, and responsive’ as the pandemic brought renewed commitment from its members to bring forth reforms in the WTO.

General Council to announce WTO DG by November

Meanwhile, six other candidates were earlier shortlisted for the position as Director-General. They are Dr. Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico), Mr. Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt), Mr. Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova), Ms. Amina Mohamed (Kenya), Mr. Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), and Dr. Liam Fox (United Kingdom).

The eight candidates nominated for the post of WTO Director-General met with members on July 15 to 17 at a meeting of the General Council. Each candidate made a brief presentation to members, including their vision for the WTO, followed by a question-and-answer period.

“Our aim continues to be to encourage and facilitate the building of consensus among members, and to assist in moving from this final slate of two candidates to a decision on appointment. As this is the final round of the consultation process, it should bring us to the point where we can make a recommendation to the General Council concerning that decision,” Amb. Walker added.

The General Council is the highest decision-making body of the WTO apart from the Ministerial Conference which meets every two years.

Amb. Walker said the third phase of consultations will commence on October 19 and run until October 27 to afford members sufficient time to prepare their positions.

The announcement of the new WTO Director-General is expected by November after further thorough scrutiny and voting by member nations of the two top contenders Ms. Okonjo-Iweala and Ms. Yoo.

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JM Agreda is a freelance journalist for more than 12 years writing for numerous international publications, research journals, and news websites. He mainly covers business, tech, transportation, and political news for Businessner.