Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala begins WTO reforms

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is taking her new position with strides towards reforms for the World Trade Organization. In a speech on March 1, she said, “I am conscious that expectations are high and shall do my utmost to move [the WTO] forward.”

Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that many countries are looking past the WTO as a useless and illegitimate organization. “More and more of the work and decision-making that should be undertaken at the WTO is being done elsewhere,” she said.

There has been a lot of controversy around the WTO and Okonjo-Iweala in recent years. The Trump administration was always very critical of the WTO, saying, “there have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations.”

Before Okonjo-Iweala was selected as Director-General, her nomination was seen as scandalous. She has long been criticized for lack of transparency and integrity during the scandal in 2015 that included $2 billion of misappropriated funds. Many view her service under President Goodluck Johnathan of Nigeria as ineffective leadership on corruption where billions of dollars of misappropriation and corruption flourished.

In her speech this week, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala outlined her plans on increasing confidence in the organization by mandating stricter regulations. The first and foremost discussion was the WTO’s contribution to the COVID-19 pandemic, “both the public health crisis as well as economic recovery.” 

“We just had our first COVAX shipment to Ghana last week and others will follow but it will not be enough. There is serious supply scarcity,” she said. She is seeking a partnership and dialogue to improve manufacturing and distribution in developing countries. 

“We must focus on working with companies to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries,” said Okonjo-Iweala.

She identified three key deliverables she wants to have addressed before the 12th Ministerial Conference this November. She wants to review the work on women in trade, environmentalism in trade, and developing countries in trade.

Despite Biden’s support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and the reform of the WTO, Democrats are still concerned about its future, and the trade regulations that are affected by it. 

Trump said that the WTO “must be led by someone with real-hands-on experience in the field,” and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has lots of experience but only time will tell if she has the grit to make much-needed changes to finally put the WTO on the right track.

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