The World Trade Organization is set to be run by a woman for the first time in its 25-year history after it was announced that the final choice to be its new director-general will be between South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Britain’s former international trade secretary Liam Fox failed to make the final shortlist as the number of candidates was whittled down from five to two.
The protracted battle to secure one of the plum international jobs will be decided early next month, with the winning candidate faced with a number of pressing problems.
Fox, despite support from the US, failed to muster sufficient backing, leaving the choice between a seasoned trade official in Yoo and a candidate in Okonjo-Iweala who says the organisation needs a fresh pair of eyes.
The other unsuccessful candidates in the second phase of a race that began with eight hopefuls were one of the original favourites, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri.
Okonjo-Iweala has served two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister and has also been her country’s foreign minister. Having also been the number two at the World Bank, she is running as an outsider and as the candidate to give the WTO fresh political momentum.
Interviewed by the Guardian last month, she said: “It’s true I am not a WTO insider but that’s a good thing. We need someone who knows trade but brings a fresh pair of eyes.
“There are a lot of people with technical skills at the WTO. There is no shortage of trade skills but the problems are there and they are getting worse. Something else is needed, strong political skills, someone able to engage leaders in a substantive way.”
Yoo has a record in government stretching back 25 years and has worked on a number of bilateral trade deals, including those with the US and the UK.
Covid-19 has had a marked impact on global trade flows, with the WTO expecting a drop of 9.2% this year and only a limited rebound in 2021.
The pandemic comes amid a simmering trade war between the US and China, the failure of the WTO to complete the Doha round of trade liberalisation talks, and the refusal of Washington to allow the appointment of judges to the organisation’s disputes appeals panel, a decision which has impaired its ability to police global trade.
The WTO has in the past decided on its leaders through a consensus of its members. If that proves impossible, a vote will be held.