The time is right for a new head of the WTO

As the world embarks on a shaky road to Covid-19 recovery, now is the moment to revive the beleaguered international trade body

A picture taken on July 15, 2020, in Geneva shows Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala smiling during a hearing before World Trade Organization 164 member states' representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as Director General. South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee on February 5, 2021 abandoned her bid to become head of the WTOm, Seoul said, clearing the way for Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to become the global body's first woman and first African director-general. / AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI
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The World Trade Organisation (WTO) appears set to appoint Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its new leader.

She will be the first woman, as well as the first African, to head the organisation. Ms Okonjo-Iweala brings years of experience to the institution, having spent two terms as Nigeria's finance minister and decades in global trade and development.

The WTO appoints leaders through a process of consensus, not elections. The new Biden administration has now approved Ms Okonjo-Iweala's bid, a change from former president Donald Trump's opposition to her candidacy. South Korea's Yoo Myung-hee, the only remaining candidate, has also withdrawn from the contest, effectively sealing the victory of the former development economist at the World Bank.

The WTO, an organisation that oversees the rules that govern global commerce, has not been having an easy time of late. A new leader could mark the moment it begins addressing issues that have recently come to light.

Vendors wait for customers at a flower market ahead of Lunar New Year in the Shatin district of Hong Kong, China, on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. The Asian financial hub has been attempting to curb a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections with targeted lockdowns that have seen authorities cordon off an area and restrict movement until residents receive negative results. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg
We still cannot be sure of a rosy future. Bloomberg
With dysfunctional internal politics and division among its members, some were starting to question whether the organisation had a future

Relations between the body and the US – one of its most important members – have been strained over the past four years. Mr Trump frequently criticised the institution for failing to curb the allegedly unfair trade practices of certain nations. He particularly singled out China.

The WTO's mission is to oversee the constructive resolution of issues of this kind, within the confines of a multilateral body. If it is working properly, it can prevent issues of trade spiralling into open geopolitical dispute.

Facing a series of structural issues, the WTO is struggling to fulfil this objective. There has been a crippling impasse preventing the appointment of new judges for the organisation's most important court, the Appellate Body. This has limited the WTO's ability to settle trade disputes.

With dysfunctional internal politics and division among its members, some were starting to question whether the organisation had a future. Ms Okonjo-Iweala's appointment raises hopes that the WTO will now be able to carry out its work.

As we tentatively approach a recovery from the pandemic, the organisation's role is crucial. Recent estimates for a global economic recovery project a quicker bounce back than expected. January's IMF forecast predicted a global growth rate this year of 5.5 per cent, 0.3 per cent higher than its October 2020 estimate.

The fund stressed that the prospect of poorer nations was less positive. Growth rates in low-income nations were consistently smaller than those in richer countries.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala's tenure must focus on rebuilding the fortunes, as well as projecting the voices, of those who struggle most under the economic consequences of the virus. She has the right experience for this task, being the current chairwoman of the Centre for Global Development.

The smooth flow of goods and capital impacts all nations. Reviving multilateralism at the WTO, the world's most important trade body, is good news for all countries, rich and poor.