18 February 2021

Quick Take – Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Announced as the First Woman Director-General of the World Trade Organisation

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been confirmed as the next director-general of the WTO after her appointment was finalized on Monday by the organisations’ members. Last week, the final hurdle in her campaign was removed as the Biden administration confirmed it would back her candidacy. 

Okonjo-Iweala has been the frontrunner for the role since the resignation of former chief Roberto Azevêdo in August, however, the Trump administration refused to support her campaign, by instead backing South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee. Now, after Yoo’s withdrawal from the race and with the US government’s backing, Okonjo-Iweala will become the first woman and first African to lead the WTO. 

Getting more women into leadership roles and furthering gender equality is something that is widely spoken about and frequently considered by governments and businesses around the world. While some are implementing real change by hiring more women across all levels, or becoming open to change by updating their diversity policies, overall the reality has not yet matched the rhetoric. That is why we should celebrate when a woman such as Okonjo-Iweala becomes a ‘first’ and breaks through the glass ceiling. Women and girls need examples of hope and representation, and society needs to see equal opportunities become the norm.

We are now starting to see governments and multilateral organisations appoint more women in leadership roles. To name a few: Kamala Harris, the recently inaugurated US Vice-President; Jacinda Arden, current Prime Minister of New Zealand; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia; Christine Lagarde, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and now President of the European Central Bank. Furthermore, this month’s African Union summit saw Rwanda’s Monique Nsanzabaganwa elected as deputy chairperson of the AU Commission, becoming the first woman to hold the role.

As the first woman and first Black African to be appointed to the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment has a wide-ranging significance. She brings with her a wealth of experience in development economics, from her time as minister of finance in Nigeria under former President Olusegun Obasanjo to her 25-year long career at the World Bank. 

In a statement, Okonjo-Iweala said she is “proud to be the first African, proud to the first woman […] but the important thing is to have the competence to deliver results.” She said that the top priority in the role was making vaccines equitable or accessible to all countries, whilst pushing back against the tide of vaccine nationalism.  

Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment represents a symbol of hope for gender equality, race equality and meritocracy. At Aequitas Global, we hope that 2021 will continue to celebrate women in leadership, whilst normalising gender and race equality.

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