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New Head of the WTO Explains 'Where My Mind Is at Now'

Okonjo-Iweala is first woman, African to lead world trade body
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 15, 2021 3:03 PM CST

(Newser) – Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed Monday to head the World Trade Organization, becoming the first woman and first African to take on the role amid rising protectionism and disagreement over how the body decides cases involving billions in sales and thousands of jobs. Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was named director-general by representatives of the 164 countries that make up the WTO, which deals with the rules of trade between nations based on negotiated agreements. She said that as the first woman and first African to hold the post, "I absolutely do feel an additional burden, I can't lie about that. Being the first woman and the first African means that one really has to perform ... and that's where my mind is at now." More from the AP:

  • Up first: Her first priority will be quickly addressing the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as by lifting export restrictions on supplies and vaccines and encouraging the manufacturing of vaccines in more countries. Other big tasks include reforming the organization’s dispute resolution process and finding ways for trade rules to deal with change such as digitalization and e-commerce.

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  • Her background: Okonjo-Iweala has been Nigeria's finance minister and, briefly, foreign minister, and had a 25-year career at the World Bank as an advocate for economic growth and development in poorer countries. She rose to the No. 2 position of managing director, where she oversaw $81 billion in development financing.
  • More: In 2012 she made an unsuccessful bid for the top post with the backing of African and other developing countries, challenging the traditional practice that the World Bank is always headed by an American. She has a bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard University and a PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • The US view: The appointment, which takes effect March 1, came after President Biden endorsed her candidacy, which had been blocked by Trump. Biden's move was a step toward his aim of supporting cooperative approaches to international problems after Trump's go-it-alone approach that launched multiple trade disputes.
  • But US concerns about the WTO date to the Obama administration: The US had blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO's appellate body, essentially freezing its ability to resolve extended and complex trade disputes. The US government has argued that the trade organization is slow-moving and bureaucratic, ill-equipped to handle the problems posed by China's state-dominated economy and unduly restrictive on US attempts to impose sanctions on countries that unfairly subsidize their companies or export at unusually low prices.
  • One take: Chad P. Bown, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the WTO faces "a ticking time bomb" in the form of other countries' challenges to Trump's use of national security as a justification for imposing tariffs, a little-used provision in US law rejected by key US trading partners in Europe. Ruling against Trump's move could provide a rallying cry for WTO skeptics in the US, while a ruling in favor could lead to other countries using national security justification as well. And that "opens a giant loophole in the trading system whereby all rules are meaningless," Bown said. Biden's administration therefore has an incentive to take the dispute off the table before a decision, expected this summer.
(Read more WTO stories.)

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