Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala grew up in Nigeria but eventually went to Harvard and MIT.
On Feb. 15 the World Trade Organisation (WTO) elected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the body’s seventh director general. She is the first woman and the first African to hold this post. The job should have been filled last September when the incumbent stood down but the Trump administration vetoed her appointment. The Biden administration confirmed her.
The WTO deals with the rules of trade among nations via agreements which are negotiated by most governments and ratified in their legislatures. Its mission is all the more important at present because of US trade disputes and competition with China.
Ahead of taking over the WTO on March 1, Okonjo-Iweala issued a sharp warning against “vaccine nationalism” that will obstruct global progress in ending the covid pandemic and undermine economic growth in all countries. In an interview with Reuters news agency, she pledged to redouble WTO efforts to lift members’ export restrictions on covid medicines and supplies.
She pointed out, “No one is safe until everyone is safe. Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming. If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blowback,” she said. “It’s unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology” to create and deliver vaccines for all.
The world economy stands to lose $9 trillion in potential output if poor countries cannot vaccinate their populations quickly, she warned. Rich countries would incur about half the loss.
“Both on a human health basis, as well as an economic basis, being nationalistic at this time, is very costly to the international community.”
She praised President Joe Biden’s $4 billion donation to the World Health Organisation’s programme to distribute vaccines equitably. Currently, 75 per cent of vaccine doses have been administered in 10 wealthy countries. They have also commandeered supplies. Canada, for example, has ordered enough doses for five times its population.
One hundred and thirty countries have not even rolled out vaccinations. Among them are 160 million people in conflict-ridden Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia where care of covid-infected patients is seriously lacking and covid-ceasefires have been proposed so vaccinations can be administered.
The COVAX programme of the World Health Organisation and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunazion (GAVI), which buys and distributes vaccines for poor countries, has been unable to commence vaccinations although rich countries have already begun their inoculation campaigns. Okonjo-Iweala’s focus on covid vaccinations is hardly surprising as she serves on the board of directors of GAVI.
Okonjo-Iweala has promised to reform the WTO and appoint judges to its appellate body, which adjudicates in trade disputes. Like her appointment, this was left in limbo by the Trump administration which backed a rival South Korean candidate. In her application for the top WTO job she argued against marginalisation of women. The WTO “should ..be responsive to the challenge of facilitating the greater participation of women in international trade, particularly in developing countries, where greater efforts should be made to include women-owned enterprises in the formal sector.”
She pointed out, “Women tend to be more honest, more straightforward, more focused on the job and bring less ego into it. I don’t know if its feminine instinct but running an economy is sometimes akin to run a household.”
In her new job, she intends to promote trade as the route for development for poor countries. During a Brookings Institution podcast she gave the example of East Asian countries where “trade has been instrumental in the export-led growth strategies that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.” She also pledged to support multilateral trade agreements negotiated under the auspices of the WTO rather than regional or bilateral deals which can create barriers to free trade. She served twice as Nigeria’s finance minister and worked for 25 years at the World Bank, where she became managing director. In this position she supervised the Bank’s operations in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia, initiated Bank aid for low-income countries during the 2008-09 food crises that accompanied the Great Recession.
While finance minister she restructured her country’s $30 billion debt and negotiated forgiveness for $18 billion. During her battle against corruption, she targeted the graft-ridden oil sector. Her mother, a medical doctor and sociology professor, was kidnapped to put pressure on the minister to desist, resign and pay a ransom. She refused and her mother was set free after a desperate five days. “I knew that the largest vested interest that I had ..offended in my anticorruption work was an unscrupulous subset of the country’s oil marketeers,” she said.
Born in 1954 in Nigeria, where her academic father was a traditional king in Delta state, she dwelt with her grandmother until she was nine while her parents were completing university studies. She told the BBC in 2012, “They were gone for almost a decade before I really saw them and knew them. I did everything a village girl would do, fetch water, go to the farm with my grandmother, (I did) all the chores, I saw what poverty meant, to be poor at first hand.” She also knows war as she was in Nigeria during the 1967-70 Biafran war. “I can take hardship. I can sleep on the cold floor anytime.” But she added that she can also sleep on a feather bed.
A bright pupil in secondary school, she won scholarships for university study. In 1973 she arrived in the US study economics at Harvard and in 1981, she earned her doctorate in regional economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She has not only experienced want and war and empathises with the concerns of the poor and forgotten, but has also adopted the forward-looking, reformist policies of her late father. She identifies as Nigerian and wears traditional Nigerian dress although she has been a US resident for decades and took out US citizenship in 2019. She is married to a Washington-based Nigerian-American neurosurgeon and has four children.
One of her sons, Uzodinma Iweala, author of “Beast of No Nation,” a 2005 novel about Africa’s child soldiers, observed, “My mum is a very powerful woman. She knows how she wants things done, and if you don’t do it her way, you are in trouble.”