Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, The WTO, And Africa’s Development

On March 1st, former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) after receiving support from the Biden Administration and other influential WTO member-nations. Soon after accepting the position, the new leader explained what will be her central objectives and put forth her vision for the Organization. At the forefront of the Okonjo-Iweala agenda is addressing the intertwined economic and health issues facing developing nations across the world, specifically in the African continent (Africanews 2021). With the Covid-19 virus and its associated variants still ravaging many nations across Africa, the international community is looking to foster increased trade as one solution for the logistics and supply chain issues relating to vaccine distribution.

The BBC reported that, as of February 2021, the WHO indicated the South African Covid-19 variant has also been “officially recorded in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Comoros, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania” and that “It’s highly likely to have reached other countries on the continent, but few have the capacity to carry out the specialized genomic sequencing required to detect coronavirus variants” (BBC 2021). Given this analysis and the threats Covid-19 poses to the people and economies of Africa, Okonjo-Iweala indicates her immediate priority will be to facilitate trade to ensure the effective and widespread distribution of the vaccines. She sees this as the way forward for a post-Covid Africa.

“I believe the WTO can contribute more strongly to a resolution of the Covid-19 pandemic by helping to improve access, accessibility, and affordability of vaccines to poor countries. And, so, on the economic side, there is definitely a role for trade to play in recovery (Africanews 2021).”

In addition to these objectives, the newly-appointed Director-General signaled that her longer-term goal is to return overall strength and legitimacy to a somewhat weakened WTO.

Okonjo-Iweala assumes office amid a time of criticism and disapproval for the Organization, which has historically been a key player in global economic and trade policy. Despite its traditionally important role within the international community, the WTO was in the hot seat during the Trump Administration as the conservative administration saw the WTO as inept and unnecessary. In addition, Roberto Azevedo, the former head of WTO, left his post for a job at PepsiCo in August of 2020, leaving the Organization perhaps even more directionless than it already was (Reuters 2020). This has prompted the newly-elected leader to reconsider its core objectives.

Okonjo-Iweala served two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister and one term as Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister. She was a managing director at the World Bank, a Growth Commission member, an African Union official, special envoy of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and part of a special commission of the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 2021, she was selected, along with several other renown economists, to join the High-Level Independent Panel (HLIP) “on financing the global commons for pandemic preparedness and response, which had been established by G20” (MEF 2021).

A confident Okonjo-Iweala firmly believes she will bring her knowledge and experience with her as WTO chief, saying “I’ve been doing tough jobs all of my life, actually” … “So that’s why I’m here – It’s just a continuation of who I am” (Africanews 2021). There are signs the new leader will focus her attention on garnering private sector participation in WTO Covid-19 initiatives. “Instead of spending time arguing on those [past WTO member squabbles] we should look at what the private sector is doing” with licensing agreements and other modes of vaccine production (Africanews 2021).

Africa has made some development progress over the past 30-40 years, which many argue was stimulated, in-part, by good trade policy. This progress has not been fast enough, however. The absolute number of people falling within the World Bank poverty index has increased due to Africa’s rapid population growth (Harvard 2019). While literacy, life expectancy, maternal mortality, and under-five mortality rates have all seen some improvements, the numbers have not kept pace with United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and other benchmarks set by the international community (Harvard).

In addition, the realities of jihadist activity, famine, and disease (most-recently the Ebola and Covid outbreaks) have only worsened and underscored the fragility of most underserved parts of the African continent. Terrorism in Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, as well as Salafi-Jihadi terrorism in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa have also added to the volatility of the continent and inhibited longer-term economic growth (Critical Threats, AEI, 2021).

While addressing some of these specific issues lies outside of direct WTO purview, to make good on her promises to assist people facing these difficulties around the globe, Okonjo-Iweala must encourage trade, form public-private partnerships, and utilize other financial capacities to facilitate safe, hastened vaccine acquisition and distribution in Africa. These other hardships only exacerbate the pandemic’s impacts and will prove to make this process more difficult for Okonjo-Iweala. As a result, the collaboration of African nations and international organizations with the WTO is paramount.