On March 1, 2021, and after a protracted selection period, the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s seventh and first female Director-General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala officially took office. A world -respected finance expert and development economist, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala further makes history by being the first DG from the African continent.
In her maiden speech, the new DG acknowledged the high expectations attendant with her assumption of office. While noting she would do her utmost to move the organisation forward, she rightly indicated that as a membership-driven organisation cooperation of its 164 members was needed. As such, she implored Members that “high expectations of my leadership also means that I have high expectations of you to help me deliver”.
As is widely acknowledged, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala assumes directorship of the WTO at a critical time in that organisation’s over two decades-long history. She will be leading an organisation which is fighting fires on several fronts and faces questions of its continued relevance given its stalemated negotiations function and defunct Appellate Body. The new DG reiterated to Members that “it cannot be business as usual”.
Outlining some of the priorities Members had indicated to her, she urged the need to “work hard to complete a few deliverables before MC12 so that Ministers can focus on ratifying agreements and agreeing best methods for implementation”. In particular, she cited the “the need to prioritize action on COVID-19 both for the immediate and longer term and focus on completing Fisheries Subsidies negotiations before the middle of the year”.
She also recommended that “three or four clear deliverables” be finalized before the WTO’s overdue Twelfth Ministerial Conference. (MC12). MC12 was originally to be held in Kazakhstan in 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the General Council meeting on March 1, WTO members decided that MC12 will take place “in the week of 29 November 2021” in Geneva, Switzerland.
The new DG also drew attention to the unequal global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, in which many poor countries lag behind rich countries in accessing doses for their citizens. She noted her hope to be able to “initiate a dialogue and information exchange between us and representatives of manufacturers associations from developing and developed countries”.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s term of office will expire on August 25, 2025 and is renewable for one more term. Read her full speech here.
We at the CTLD Blog take this opportunity to congratulate Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and wish her a successful tenure.
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.