World Trade Organization Announces First Woman and African as Director General

On Monday February 15, the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria will be Director General. She will be the first woman and African Director General in the nearly 75-year history of the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will take office on March 1, and select her four deputies on the basis of members’ recommendations, as consensus is the WTO norm. With her term lasting until August 31, 2025, she will serve four years and six months, which is a longer term for the head of the WTO, due to her predecessor departing early.

The Geneva-based WTO is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations, and ratified or approved in their parliaments or legislatures. The goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters and importers conduct business. There are more than 60 agreements dealing with goods, services, investment measures and intellectual property rights.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, who became a U.S. citizen in 2019, is a global finance expert, economist and international development professional with more than 30 years of experience. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria’s Finance Minister from 2003–2006 and 2011–2015, and briefly as Foreign Minister in 2006, being the first woman to hold both positions.

In her time as Finance Minister, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala negotiated with the Paris Club of Creditors to wipe out $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt and led reforms that enhanced government transparency and strengthened institutions against corruption.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala had a 25-year career at the World Bank, where she served as a development economist and rose to the No. 2 position of managing director. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has received many awards and recognitions as a top female leader in Africa and the world including: Top 3 Most Powerful Women in Africa (Forbes, 2012); Top 100 Most Influential People in the World (TIME, 2014); Global Finance Minister of the Year (Euromoney, 2005); and the Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Award from the Aspen Institute in 2017.

Most recently, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala became an Angelopoulos Global Public Leader at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and currently serves on many boards including the Board of the African Union’s African Risk Capacity (ARC) as the chair. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala earned a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Selection Process

On May 14, 2020, then-WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil suddenly announced he would leave the position on August 31, a year before the formal end of his term.

Azevêdo said in a statement that he timed his departure so the process of selecting his successor wouldn’t distract the WTO’s next big ministerial conference, which now is delayed into this year — 2021. The next major WTO meeting could be a turning point for discussions on the future of the organization. Modernization and reform of the trading system will be a major topic.

Director General candidates were nominated by their governments starting June 8, 2020. Candidates were invited to meet with WTO membership at a special General Council meeting during which they presented their views and responded to questions. Historically, a new Director General is appointed by consensus of the General Council following a several-month period during which candidates have the opportunity to make themselves known to WTO members.

By October 2020, the field of eight was narrowed to two candidates. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was the consensus candidate; however, the United States held up her nomination, supporting runner-up trade minister Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea. The WTO then stalled the nomination process, hoping to find a U.S. consensus with the new Biden administration.
Throughout 2020, the United States remained steadfast in opposing the WTO. Trump administration spokespersons said the WTO’s dispute settlement system threatens U.S. sovereign rights, has strayed from its original mandate, and allowed nations to gain concessions they never would have been able to obtain at the negotiating table.

U.S. Backs Dr. Okonjo-Iweala

On February 4, 2021, the United States gave its formal backing to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to lead the WTO. The Biden administration declared its “strong support” Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to serve as the WTO’s next director general. The decision broke with the Trump administration’s support for South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee and brought the U.S. in line with much of the rest of the world.

“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister. She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership,” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative wrote in a statement.

In early February, Yoo had withdrawn her bid to lead the WTO, as President Joe Biden’s administration indicated it preferred a swift move to appoint a WTO leader. “Considering various factors, including the need to revitalize the role of the WTO, Yoo has decided to renounce her candidacy,” the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, which Yoo leads as minister, said. “South Korea will continue to make various contributions to rebuild and enhance multilateralism. It will especially make efforts to play leading roles in global issues, including reforming the WTO, as well as the digital economy and climate change,” it added.

Minister Yoo Myung-Hee, South Korea

Minister Yoo is the first female trade minister in the Republic of Korea. Minister Yoo has had a 25-year career in trade, having been a key free trade agreement (FTA) strategist for Korea. During this time, Minister Yoo took charge of the WTO affairs in the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, and negotiated the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Korea-China FTA, and the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) FTA, among other initiatives.

Minister Yoo was the first director of the new FTA Policy Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where she designed Korea’s FTA strategy in 2005. This strategy resulted in Korea’s FTA network that includes 56 countries, at all levels of development.

Minister Yoo has an M.A. in public policy from Seoul National University in Korea and a J.D. from Vanderbilt University. She was admitted to the New York State Bar in 2003.

WTO Candidates

As of July 8, 2020, the closing date for applications, the candidates for WTO Director General also included:

Dr. Jesús Seade Kuri, Mexico
Chief negotiator of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), referred to in Mexico as TMEC (Treaty of Mexico, U.S., Canada).

Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, Egypt
An Egyptian negotiator and a senior WTO official since 1990.

Ambassador Tudor Ulianovschi, Moldova
Recent Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Ambassador Amina C. Mohamed, Kenya
Served as Kenya’s Permanent Representative and Ambassador to the WTO from 2000 to 2006.

Minister Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, Saudi Arabia
Most recently served as Minister of Economy and Planning.

Dr. Liam Fox, United Kingdom
Former Secretary of State for Defense and U.K. Secretary of State for International Trade.


In 1994, the U.S. Congress approved the trade agreements resulting from the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations under the auspices of the GATT. The agreement liberalized world trade and created a new WTO, effective January 1, 1995, succeeding the 47-year-old GATT.

The GATT had been created in 1948 to expand economic activity by reducing tariffs and other barriers to trade. The Uruguay Round agreements built on past successes by reducing tariffs by roughly one-third across the board and by expanding the GATT framework to include additional agreements.

The WTO is a multilateral treaty subscribed to by 164 governments, which together account for the majority of world trade (with more than 20 nations negotiating their accession).
Successful multilateral negotiating rounds have helped increase world trade; the WTO estimates the 1994 Uruguay Round trade deal added more than $100 billion to world income. The World Bank estimates that new successful world trade talks could bring nearly $325 billion in income to the developing world and lift 500 million people out of poverty. Other studies have shown that eliminating trade barriers would mean $2,500 per year in increased income to the average U.S. family of four.

For U.S. businesses, successful implementation of WTO negotiations would translate to:

• expanded market access for U.S. farm products;
• expanded market access for U.S.-manufactured goods;
• reduced cost of exporting to some countries; and
• improvement in foreign customs procedures that currently cause shipment delays.

Anticipated Action

The California Chamber of Commerce is hopeful that with a new Director General now selected by consensus, there can be path forward for the WTO to tackle reforms within the organization. The revamp should address the functioning of the Appellate Body, encourage greater transparency and enhance discipline for members who fall behind on or do not adhere to reporting obligations.

The Twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference, originally planned for June 2020 in Kazakhstan, now may be scheduled for December 2021.

CalChamber Position

The CalChamber, in keeping with longstanding policy, enthusiastically supports free trade worldwide, expansion of international trade and investment, fair and equitable market access for California products abroad and elimination of disincentives that impede the international competitiveness of California business.
The WTO has a positive impact on how California producers of goods and services compete in overseas markets, as well as domestically, and creates jobs and economic growth through expanded international trade and investment.

The WTO gives businesses improved access to foreign markets and better rules to ensure that competition with foreign businesses is conducted fairly. Trade liberalization can create new jobs, higher incomes, and economic growth for countries around the world.

California’s $3 trillion-plus economy is one of the 10 largest in the world. Although trade is a nationally determined policy issue, its impact on California is immense. California exports goods to more than 225 foreign markets around the world. Trade offers the opportunity to expand the role of California’s exports. In its broadest terms, trade can literally feed the world and raise the living standards of those around us.

Staff Contact: Susanne T. Stirling

Susanne T. Stirling
Susanne T. Stirling, vice president, international affairs, has headed CalChamber international activities for more than four decades. She is an appointee of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to the National Export Council, and serves on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce International Policy Committee, the California International Relations Foundation, and the Chile-California Council. Originally from Denmark, she studied at the University of Copenhagen and holds a B.A. in international relations from the University of the Pacific, where she served as a regent from 2012 to 2021. She earned an M.A. from the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. See full bio.