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WTO director general: A woman will oversee global trade for the first time

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The field of candidates vying to become the next director-general of the WTO later this year has been reduced to Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, the Geneva-based body said in a statement on Thursday.

The WTO was established in 1995 with the aim of promoting open trade for the benefit of all. It negotiates and administers rules for international trade and tries to resolve disputes among its 164 members.

Okonjo-Iweala is an economist and former finance minister of Nigeria. She spent 25 years at the World Bank, rising to become the organization’s managing director of operations. In 2018, she was named to the board of Twitter (TWTR). She also chairs the board of Gavi, an international organization that aims to bring together the public and private sectors to improve access to vaccines.

“Happy to be in the final round of the @WTO [director general] campaign,” she tweeted on Thursday. “Thanks, WTO members for your continued support of my candidacy.”

Okonjo-Iweala will face off against Yoo, who is the first woman to serve as South Korea’s trade minister.

“Deeply grateful and honored to be selected for the final round in the selection process of the next @WTO Director General!” Yoo said on Twitter after the final candidates were announced.

The next director general of the WTO will assume control of an organization that has struggled to prevent trade spats among member states, most notably the United States and China. She will also be forced to grapple with fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which slammed trade and triggered a deep global recession.

Much may depend on the outcome of the US presidential election in November.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the WTO and undermined its mission by imposing tariffs on allies including Canada and Mexico, as well as China, the world’s second biggest economy and a rival of the United States. Trump has blocked the appointment of key personnel to the WTO, hobbling the organization.

Yoo has described the WTO as “being at a crossroads.” In a video produced as part of her campaign for director general, she said members must now work to rebuild trust and reform the global trading system.

“The global economy is under tremendous strain. This is precisely why the WTO is more important than ever,” she said.

Okonjo-Iweala, who hails from one of the few parts of the world where free trade is ascendent, told CNN in August that trade would play an important role in the recovery from coronavirus.

“The WTO needs a leader at this time. It needs a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it’s in,” she said in an interview.

— Stephanie Busari contributed reporting.

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