Gavi Board Chair Okonjo-Iweala Is Recommended As Next World Trade Organization Director-General – US Opposition Stalls Final WTO Decision
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, in her former role as Nigerian Finance Minister, speaking at French-African economic conference

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, board chair of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, on Wednesday was named as the favored candidate to be the next World Trade Organization director-general  – after a months-long WTO campaign process and in a decisive moment of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as the United States came out in favor of the Republic of Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, stalling the final consensus-building process, WTO officials said that a final decision will have to go before the full 164-member General Council of member governments on November 9 – a week after the US presidential elections.

The US opposition to a recommendation by the WTO’s “Troika” selection committee, is a double slap in the face since Iweala is a dual US-Nigerian citizen. She also comes to the table with strong global health credentials at a time in which the WTO is being asked to broker sensitive issues of patent rights versus medicines access.

The new WTO Director General will play a critical role in negotiating the rough waters ahead between countries in the global South that want to create a broad “patent waiver” for COVID-19 health products and high-income countries in the G7 and the European Union that oppose such a move. Iweala, a former Nigerian Trade Minister, is serving as a special African Union envoy charged with mobilizing economic support for the fight against the pandemic.

In the final, late September round of her campaign, Iweala made it clear that she sees WTO as playing a pivotal role in pandemic response, saying that “trade can contribute to public health and the WTO can lead”.  While she has also issued positive signals to business leaders, she also   tweeted that “the health of populations is the business of the WTO… The world can’t wait WTO must play a central role in the COVID-19 supply chain.”

India and South Africa’s Bid for A WTO “Waiver” on COVID-related Intellectual Property

Not since the HIV/AIDS crisis of the late 1990s, has the WTO been so much in the health limelight. India and South Africa recently proposed that the WTO agree to a blanket “waiver” on the WTO trade-related agreements (TRIPS) rules regarding patent and copyright restrictions and trade secrets related to any COVID-19 health products and equipment for the duration of the pandemic. This, they argued, would enable easier production, export and access to generic versions of not only drugs but vital equipment like respirators and diagnostic tests.

The fact that the European Union has lined up in favor of Iweala’s candidacy reflects widespread confidence among skittish developed countries that she will be able to steer contentious WTO debates in a fair and balanced manner.

“I am pleased to announce that the European parliament is endorsing @NOIweala as the Director-General of the WTO,” said EU parlimentarian Sven Simon in a tweet last week. “After our joint hearing on Monday, we are convinced by her vision for the future of multilateralism and advise WTO members to support her bid.”

Indeed, among the 27 delegations that spoke at today’s WTO meeting, only the US went on record opposing Iweala’s candidacy – saying that her Korean rival had more trade experience and could “hit the ground running.”.

“The Troika presented to the membership their assessment of the candidate that had th best chance of attaining the consensus of the [WTO] membership that candidate is Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria,” said said WTO’s director of information, Keith Rockwell, at the Wednesday briefing. “One delegation could not support the candidacy of Dr Ngozi, and said they would continue to support South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee. That delegation was the United States of America.

”The US says that they supported Minister Yoo because of her 25 years of trade experience – that she would be able to hit the ground running,” Rockwell said. “They said that they could not endorse Dr. Ngozi.”

He added: “There will be a General Council meeting held on the ninth of November, at which we hope to take a decision on this very important matter.”

“This [meeting] was never intended to make a final decision,” Rockwell underlined at the Wednesday afternoon briefing,  delayed for nearly two hours while more than two dozen countries debated the recommendation of the “WTO Troika” that has been managing the DG selection process.

That “Troika” led by WTO Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, along with Honduras’ Dacio Castillo and Harald Aspelund of Iceland.

Rockwell said that the Troika had made their recommendation after a wide-ranging series of  private consultations with member states. The Troika’s consultations found that Iweala had “by a wide margin, the most preference, that she had wide support across all regions and across levels of development, LDCs (least developed countries) developing countries and developed countries.

“They said she had had these since the very beginning of the process.”

However, no formal roll-count of WTO members has been taken, Rockwell added, noting that WTO elections aim to build a consensus of all 164 members.

“The process of consultation is confidential. It’s not a vote.  It’s very important to understand that this is a process of building a consensus around one candidate, so that the Director General will be the director general for all WTO members.”

“There will be a General Council meeting on the 9th of November, in which we hope to take a final decision on the matter.”

Navigating a Pandemic, Bickering Economies and National Protectionism

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Igniting Innovation in Financial Access panel, 2020.

On October 26, the European Union joined African and Caribbean states, among others, in endorsing Okonjo-Iweala. China has also reportedly expressed support for her appointment.

A former finance minister and World Bank managing director, Okonjo-Iweala is currently the African Union’s Special Envoy to Mobilise International Economic Support for the Continental Fight Against COVID-19. She has been named as one of Transparency International’s 8 Female Anti-Corruption Fighters Who Inspire (2019).

In a recent interview with Reuters she said: “I feel I can solve the problems. I’m a known reformer, not someone who talks about it. I’ve actually done it both at the World Bank and in my country.”

If her bid is successful, Okonjo-Iweala will need not only to navigate a pandemic, but also wider issues involving bickering economies as national protectionism has risen during the pandemic. She will need to overhaul the WTO’s top appeals body which has had judge appointments repeatedly blocked by US President Donald Trump’s administration.

Gavi Board Chair Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Even if Trump is defeated next week by Democratic contender Joe Biden, Trump will remain a “lame duck” president until the inauguration of his successor in January 2021.

Potentially, if Trump digs in his heels, that could prolong any WTO debate over the final choice of a director-general for a couple of months, leaving the organization with no one at the helm even as the expected announcement of COVID-19 drug and vaccine breakthroughs will make the scramble for health products and the urgency of resolving emerging disputes over patent rights even more immediate.

Commitment to Health and Global Immunization Goals

Okonjo-Iweala first moved to the United States in the 1970s to study Economics at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude. She later received an International Fellowship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) to support her doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

She later served as Nigeria’s longest-running finance minister from 2003-2006 and 2011-2015, during which time she negotiated a $US 30 billion reduction in the country’s external debt.

In 2015, Okonjo-Iweala was appointed Chair-elect of the Gavi Board, and four years later received the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award for her role in supporting work to provide sustained access to childhood vaccines for more than 760 million children.

It was that same year she became a dual US citizen, having spent several decades already working and studying in the country.

Image Credits: DGTresor , WTO, World Bank Photo Collection, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

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