Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: WIKIMEDIA
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: WIKIMEDIA

One global achievement during the pandemic is that major countries put aside their differences and agreed on a person to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO). And not just any person, but the first woman and first African to be director-general of this guardian institution of open trade.   

This consensus hints at what Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala herself calls the WTO’s potential to be a “force for good” in countering the coronavirus’s economic effects and lifting up the world’s most marginalised people. The last thing the world needs, says the Harvard-educated economist, is a “surge of nationalism” in response to the pandemic and a closing of borders and a disruption of global supply chains. Multilateralism has never been more needed than now.

She points out the pandemic has forced many countries to be transparent, predictable and fair in how they contain the virus — all fundamental principles of the multilateral trading system set up after World World 2 and especially in the WTO’s founding 26 years ago.

Her first priority is to make sure health supplies flow freely between countries. After that, her biggest task is to spread the benefits of the global trading system more widely. Last year, as the pandemic was starting, she wrote that out of the “doom and gloom” of an epidemic “there are fresh insights about the value of caring work, the need for empathy and the importance of community”. Will the world, she asked, see “a new spirit of kindness based on the dramatic reminder of our shared humanity?”

Growing up in Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala saw how trade protectionism can lead to political patronage and corruption. As the country’s first female finance minister she stood up to special-interest groups in a campaign against corruption. As MD of the World Bank, she honed her managerial skills as an honest broker, as a listener, and as someone with what she calls “an objective head”.

The WTO needs such skills to form a new consensus about its purpose. The 164-nation body has faltered in the face of a backlash against globalisation and a contest between China and the US, especially over their competing models for running an economy. Trade, she says, cannot be made “a bogeyman to blame for the economic problems that some countries face”. /Boston, February 16

The Christian Science Monitor

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