Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the seventh Director-General of the World Trade Organization. Born 13 June 1954, Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian-American economist and board executive with extensive professional experience in major companies. Since March 2021, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been serving as Director-General of the World Trade Organization, becoming the first woman and first African to lead the organization as Director-General. She sits on boards of: Danone, Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, MINDS: Mandela Institute for Development Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and others.
Early life and education
Okonjo-Iweala was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria. Okonjo-Iweala was educated at Queen’s School, Enugu; St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan; and the International School Ibadan. She arrived in the US in 1973 to study at Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976. She earned a master’s degree in city planning in 1978 and her PhD in regional economics and development in 1981 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Okonjo-Iweala had a 25-year career at the World Bank in Washington DC as a development economist and rose to the No.2 position of Managing Director, Operations. As managing director, she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia. Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008–2009 food crises and later during the financial crisis.
Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and briefly acted as Foreign Minister in 2006. She was the first woman to hold both positions. During her first term as Finance Minister in the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of US$18 billion. In 2003, she led efforts to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management including the implementation of an oil-price-based fiscal rule.
In 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was re-appointed as Minister of Finance in Nigeria with the expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy by President Goodluck Jonathan.
After leaving government, Okonjo-Iweala became a member of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (2015–2016), chaired by Gordon Brown, and the Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance, which was established by the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors (2017–2018). Since 2014, she has been co-chairing the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate, with Nicholas Stern and Paul Polman.
Okonjo-Iweala is the founder of Nigeria’s first indigenous opinion-research organization, NOI-Polls. She also founded the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (C-SEA), a development research think-tank based in Abuja.
In June 2020, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari nominated Okonjo-Iweala as the country’s candidate to be director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Okonjo-Iweala was unanimously appointed as the next Director-General on 15 February. She began her career as Director General of the WTO on 1 March 2021.
According to the WTO website, Okonjo-Iweala: “is a firm believer in the power of trade to lift developing countries out of poverty and assist them to achieve robust economic growth and sustainable development. As Finance Minister, she was involved in trade negotiations with other West African countries and contributed to the overhaul of Nigeria’s trade policy enabling it to enhance its competitiveness.”
In her own words:
“I think trade is important to developing countries because trade is an instrument. It’s part of the arsenal of tools, if you will, with which a country approaches development. It’s an essential part of that. A good example is you can see in the East Asian countries how trade has been instrumental in the export-led growth strategies that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.
I can think of specific examples. What we did, for instance, in Cote d’Ivoire during the time we were trying to help them with improving the output and productivity of coffee and the overall management of the coffee sector so that they could export more and earn more—including even macroeconomic issues like exchange rate overvaluation and trying to improve on that. So that’s one example. All over West Africa at that time, actually, in the 1990s we were working hard on trying to get the macroeconomic environment right, to get the sectoral issues vis-a-vis agricultural production and export right, and to help countries to export more and to trade more.”