The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) first female and first African director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, started work on Monday, ending a six-month leadership void as she aims to revive the global trade watchdog in advance of an important yearend meeting.
After a long campaign that was derailed in the latter stages by a Trump administration veto, the 66-year-old Nigerian was confirmed as boss last month, pledging to “forget business as usual” at the body which is struggling to strike new deals and whose arbitration functions are paralysed.
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“It feels great. I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do. I feel ready to go,” Okonjo-Iweala told a reporter on arrival at the WTO’s lakeside Geneva headquarters where she donned a mask and elbow-bumped officials.
The first day with the former finance and foreign minister at the helm of the WTO coincides with a closed meeting of its top decision-making body, the General Council.
Delegates from its 164 member states joined virtually and agreed to hold the next important ministerial conference in Geneva, Switzerland, beginning on November 29. The WTO later confirmed the date.
The meeting was originally due to be held in Kazakhstan in 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. Okonjo-Iweala has said she hopes it will be the venue for clinching deals on ending fisheries subsidies and reforms for the WTO’s top appeals body which was paralysed by the Trump administration.
“Things are not easy when members are negotiating and there are still a lot of critical issues that need to be sorted out. But we are hopeful,” she said, speaking next to an ice statue of fish erected by environmental groups outside the WTO.
Okonjo-Iweala has previously said that agreeing on trade rules to facilitate COVID-19 vaccine distribution is also a priority.
Her predecessor, Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, stepped down on August 31, a year early.
Since the director-general role holds few executive powers, some analysts question Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to revive the body in the face of so many challenges including persistent US-China trade tensions and growing protectionism heightened by the pandemic.