The United States is refusing to back Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the first African director-general of the World Trade Organization, the WTO has confirmed.
WTO general council chair David Walker of New Zealand and his two co-facilitators in the selection process told the organisation’s members that Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister of Nigeria, was best placed to gain a consensus of member states, but said that the US was still backing her rival, South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-Hee.
“But the assessment was challenged by the United States which said it would continue to support Minister Yoo and could not back the candidacy of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,” said a statement on the WTO website.
Given that the US is contesting the recommendation made by the troika of ambassadors, Walker said that a formal decision now had to be taken by members at a general council meeting scheduled for 9 November.
“She clearly carried the largest support by Members in the final round and she clearly enjoyed broad support from Members from all levels of development and all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process. I am therefore submitting the name of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommending her appointment by the General Council as the next Director-General of the WTO until 31 August 2024,” Walker said.
In a statement, the Office of the US Trade Representative said that the WTO is badly in need of major reform and “must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”
“Minister Yoo is a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker. She has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization.”
The resistance of the world’s largest economy complicates Okonjo-Iweala’s push for victory. Okonjo-Iweala ran on a platform of using her political skills and reputation as an honest broker – honed during two stints as finance minister of Nigeria and a stint as managing director at the World Bank – to forge high-level political agreements between global decision makers.
She has expressed confidence in her ability to mediate disputes between the sparring US and China, and claims to be the only candidate working at the intersection of trade and public health, which she says will enable the trade system to better deliver vaccines and medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala enjoys the backing of African member states, and bolstered her case with the endorsement of the European Union’s 27 member states following discussions in Brussels last week.
The guidelines for the contest say that the key consideration in determining which candidate is best poised to achieve consensus is the “breadth of support” each candidate receives from the members.
During the DG selection processes of 2005 and 2013, breadth of support was defined as “the distribution of preferences across geographic regions and among the categories of members generally recognised in WTO provisions: that is (least developed countries), developing countries and developed countries.”