Alicia Nicholls

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is on track to select its first female Director-General (DG). Out of an original field of eight candidates which was later narrowed down to five, the two finalists for consideration to become the global trade watchdog’s seventh Director-General are Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s  Yoo Myung-hee.

If either candidate wins the support of the WTO’s diverse membership of 164, it will be the organisation’s first female DG after a quarter century of existence.

Who are the finalists?

Both women are highly qualified and experienced in the political and international relations fields, although their areas of expertise differ. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has both Nigerian and US citizenship, has not only held ministerial portfolios in Nigeria, but also spent many years as an economist at the World Bank where she eventually rose to the position of Managing Director – the Washington-based institution’s second highest position. If selected, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would be the first African to lead the WTO. She beat out fellow African country nominees, Ms. Amina Mohamed of Kenya and Mr. Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt who had been among the eight original candidates. Ms. Mohamed, however, had been among the five candidates to advance to the second round.

Ms. Yoo Myung-hee is a lawyer and South Korea’s current Minister of Trade and brings twenty-five years of career experience in the international trade field. She was involved in several key negotiations including the Korea-China Free Trade Agreement, the renegotiation of the Korea-US FTA (KORUS) and the on-going Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If selected, she would be the second Asian to hold the WTO’s top position, after Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi held the post from 2002-2005.

The DG selection process commenced shortly after then DG Roberto Azevedo’s surprise announcement that he would be demitting office a full year before his second and final term was due to expire. The process is currently in its third and final round of consultations and the final selection is set to occur by early November once Members can agree on whom they prefer.

What does it all mean?

The prospect of a female WTO DG is, of course, a progressive, symbolic and promising step for an institution which is one of the most important in the global economic governance architecture.

However, symbolism aside, regardless of whichever candidate eventually emerges victorious, she will have a monumental task on her hands. That is, she will have to help save an organization which is badly in need of reform and facing mounting pressure and criticism from once staunch advocates of the multilateral trading system.

Some of the many issues include the stalled negotiations function, the current Appellate Body impasse, threats of a US exit from the WTO if incumbent US President Donald Trump wins the November presidential elections, US-China tensions, and growing disagreement among members over the current model of ‘special and differential treatment’.

Moreover, it should be recalled that the post of Director-General has few executive powers. The WTO is a Member-driven organisation, meaning that the eventual DG will have to frequently harness her soft power for any progress to be made in addressing the myriad of issues affecting the organization. As such, while technical knowledge and experience are important, perhaps doubly important would be each finalists’ skills of negotiation and capability of inspiring the trust, goodwill and confidence of the WTO’s membership.

May the best woman for the task win!

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. All views herein expressed are her personal views and should not be attributed to any institution with which she may from time to time be affiliated. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.