Why the US Should Support Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to Head the World Trade Organization

In the current selection process for a new director-general at the World Trade Organization, the United States has vetoed an otherwise consensus-supported candidate Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. I believe it is a mistake for the US to block her selection to this post. It is obvious to me that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala is the far more well qualified candidate and the best choice for leading the WTO in the challenging times we have today.

For the US to oppose her selection is bizarre. Not only is she well acquainted with the United States by virtue of her stellar academic credentials (Harvard for her BA and MIT for her PhD); not only has she spent decades working in the US at the World Bank; she also happens to have become a US citizen in 2019!  With these strong American links, one might have thought that the Chinese would oppose her, but no, it is only the US that is currently objecting to her selection!  And it would be scandalous for the WTO to miss once again the opportunity to have a director-general from the African continent.

My recommendation is for the Biden/Harris team to correct this situation. The WTO General Council has postponed its 9 November 2020 to discuss next steps in the selection process, and this suggests that the membership is still looking for a consensus. Unfortunately, the current administration remains in power until January, but I do think it is possible for our next President-elect (once his election has been confirmed) to signal that he would not object to her appointment as director-general. Even with continued opposition from the current administration, the WTO rules do allow for taking the matter to a vote – something which is possible to do even if it is not the preferred choice among the WTO’s membership. If it were well enough understood that the new administration would be ready to work with Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, I think the membership could comfortably proceed with this option.

Here are my reasons for supporting her. First, I had observed how frequently she was called upon to represent a Nigerian and/or African-wide perspective in global public policy debates and how succinctly and confidently she distinguished herself in these forums. Consistently, her interventions were both eloquent and informative. But it is only recently that I came to have any direct interactions with her, when she took on the position of chairing the NGO called GAVI the Vaccine Alliance.  Although her prior experiences had not been in the health field, she became a fully informed advocate on the issues facing GAVI on access to vaccines generally, and in today’s crisis environment, on the complex challenges of access to coronavirus vaccines specifically.  In my interactions with her, she especially impressed me with her understanding of the importance of multilateral collaboration on the development and dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines.  She completes her tenure as chair of the GAVI Board at the end of December. Thus, when the interplay between health and trade is more important than ever, she is well positioned to lead the WTO in this top priority area.

Second, critics have cited her lack of “inside-trade” experience, but I find this to be a disingenuous attack on her credentials. There is, to be sure, a tendency for the trade policy world to be very parochial, just as the health policy world can also be very parochial. But it is a club that needs a fresh perspective. As with her responsibilities at GAVI, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala has shown a solid understanding of the basic trade issues confronting the WTO today – the appellate review crisis, the classification of developed versus developing countries, the controversies in specific trading areas like fisheries, environmental goods, high technology, or IP and health, as well as the basics of agriculture, manufacturing and services.

Finally, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala conveys an aura of warmth and compassion, along with an eloquence and self-confidence that make her well suited for a leadership role in helping to build a consensus among the member states of the WTO. In addition to her being a stellar spokesperson for Africa and for women, two characteristics that are very much needed for a dynamic WTO in the future, she is clearly the best candidate for leading the WTO for the benefit of all of its member states, including the United States.

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