Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed to head the World Trade Organisation (WTO), becoming the first woman and first African to take on the role.
The appointment comes amid disagreement over how the body decides cases involving billions in sales and thousands of jobs.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was named director-general of the WTO, which deals with the rules of trade between nations, by representatives of the 164 member countries.
She said in a statement that her first priority would be quickly addressing the economic and health consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and to “implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again”.
— WTO (@wto) February 15, 2021
“Our organisation faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today,” she said in a statement.
The appointment came after US President Joe Biden endorsed her candidacy, which had been blocked by former president Donald Trump.
Mr Biden’s move was a step towards his aim of supporting more co-operative approaches to international problems after Mr Trump’s “America first” approach that launched multiple trade disputes.
But unblocking the appointment is only the start in dealing with trade disputes launched by Mr Trump, and in resolving US concerns about the WTO that date to the Obama administration.
The US had blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appellate body, essentially freezing its ability to resolve extended and complex trade disputes.
The US government has argued that the trade organisation is slow-moving and bureaucratic, ill-equipped to handle the problems posed by China’s state-dominated economy and unduly restrictive on US attempts to impose sanctions on countries that unfairly subsidise their companies or export at unusually low prices.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala is the first African official and the first woman to hold the job.
She has been Nigeria’s finance minister and, briefly, foreign minister, and has had a 25-year career at the World Bank as an advocate for economic growth and development in poorer countries.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala rose to the number two position of managing director, where she oversaw 81 billion dollars in development financing in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.
She made an unsuccessful bid for the top post in 2012 with the backing of African and other developing countries, challenging the traditional practice that the World Bank is always headed by an American.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala has said she is a believer in the power of trade to lift developing countries out of poverty.
Serving as special envoy for the African Union to mobilise financial support for the fight against Covid-19, she urged richer countries to support a two-year standstill on debt service for indebted countries and proposed easing economic sanctions on Sudan and Zimbabwe for health reasons.
“What we are saying is: Look, the virus doesn’t know what sanctions are… If we don’t help them in the same way other countries are being helped, they will have the virus and will infect everyone else,” she argued.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University and a PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee had withdrawn her candidacy, leaving Ms Okonjo-Iweala as the only choice.
Her predecessor, Roberto Azevedo, stepped down on August 31, a year before his term expired.
Mr Trump repeatedly accused the WTO of unfair treatment of the US, started a trade war with China in defiance of the WTO system, and threatened to pull the United States out of the trade body altogether.
He also imposed 25% steel tariffs that hit European allies on national security grounds, a justification that went beyond trade measures normally used within the WTO rules framework to address complaints about unfair trade.
So far, Mr Biden has not said whether the US will unblock the appellate appointments, and he has not withdrawn the steel tariffs either, which are backed by US steel industry and union groups.