Commentary: Nigerian-Born Economist Best to Lead the WTO

The tariff wars of U.S. President Donald Trump’ administration have garnered enormous press coverage over the past four years, and rightly so. They have pitted America against the other major economies in the world in head-to-head high-stakes disputes.

Global trade practitioners, however, have been equally focused on a battleground far from the eye of the general public — the World Trade Organization. The WTO, made up of 164 members, is tasked with trying to bring new global trade agreements and resolve disputes over existing trade activity. This has been a longstanding aspiration.

Since 2016, the Trump administration has energetically pushed a strong indictment against the WTO, arguing that it had allowed judicial overreach in its dispute settlement, failed to rein in China‘s massive state subsidies, and ceded so much leadership in crafting new trade accords that it bordered on irrelevance.

The surprise? Trump received comparatively little pushback. Indeed, an undercurrent of reform had been building, and WTO officials themselves were quick to acknowledge the shortcomings.

With the WTO director-general post now open, the Trump team has hit the pause button. The two finalists are Yoo Myung-hee, trade minister of South Korea, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-born economist and international development expert who also holds U.S. citizenship. The consensus candidate backed by the overwhelming number of member nations is Okonjo-Iweala. She has a director-general’s dream resume.

She holds dual citizenship in the United States and Nigeria. She has degrees from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She served two terms as finance and coordinating minister of the economy of Nigeria (Africa’s largest economy) and, over 25 years, rose through the ranks of the World Bank Group (the largest development agency in the world) to become managing director.

She proved a reliable and pragmatic interlocutor with the U.S. government in negotiating bilateral debt relief while leading the Nigerian government’s senior economic team. She brought a pragmatic approach, insisting that Nigeria first undertake internal reforms to ensure that canceled debt would sustainably boost its economy. In her role at the World Bank, she proved her alliance-building bona fides by helping to negotiate a politically delicate, multilateral replenishment — on the order of $49 billion — for the World Bank’s lending arm for the poorest nations.

She is also willing to break some china, if it stands in the way of reform. An economist by training, she challenged entrenched interests in Nigeria to help create a long-term macroeconomic stability fund that would be drawn from oil revenues when oil prices surged above a certain point. She successfully pushed transparency programs that eliminated “ghost workers” that were sapping the Nigerian treasury. There is broad recognition that she is an institutional reformer who leads with distinction and impact.

Okonjo-Iweala is a triple-threat in the realm of global commerce. She is regarded as an authoritative diplomatic voice in both the United States and the developing world. She has a global macroeconomic perspective and a willingness to roll up her sleeves inside bureaucracies. She has a strong backbone in a fight and, when necessary, a soft hand for finessing a consensus. Not the least of her qualifications is having more trade experience than many of the previous U.S. trade representatives — combined.

It is surprising, then, that the Trump administration would throw shade on her readiness for the post and signal support for a dark-horse candidate, Yoo, the South Korean trade minister who lost to Okonjo-Iweala in round after round of voting for the director-general position.

This need not be a cliff-hanger. There’s no question which candidate is better poised for the immediate months and years ahead. Okonjo-Iweala, among other roles, is on the board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. Who better to referee the patent brawl that awaits once a COVID-19 vaccine goes from approval to distribution?

Beyond qualifications, the history-making nature of her well-earned and expected appointment as the first woman and person of color to lead the WTO has inspired so many around the world. The Trump administration’s objection to the consensus vote has immeasurably raised the ire of Africans who are still trying to reconcile the avalanche of insults over the past few years from America.

There is truly only one candidate in this contest who is capable of both knocking heads and achieving a meeting of minds. It is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She would be immediately acclaimed by those impatient for a fairer contest in global trade, and immediately feared by those who have not been playing by the rules.

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Commentary: Nigerian-Born Economist Best to Lead the WTO originally appeared on usnews.com

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