Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is the first woman to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO), making inclusion central to multilateral institutions

Rangita de Silva de Alwis
University of Pennsylvania Law School
Nonresident Leadership Fellow at WAPPP and Hillary Rodham Clinton Research Fellow on Gender Equity Georgetown University

UN Under-Secretary-General Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka
Executive Director of UN Women
Nonresident Leadership Fellow at WAPPP

Our friend, Okonjo Iweala, is also known as “Wahala,” a popular Pidgin English word in Nigerian meaning trouble. She told us, “I loved this nickname …. To me, it was a badge of honor.” As a world-renowned development economist, author, and advocate, Okonjo Iweala has been a force for gender-equal economic development, sustainable financing, and anti-corruption. Okonjo Iweala has held some of the most distinguished positions in the government of Nigeria, the World Bank, and in global multilateral institutions. Okonjo Iweala’s impressive ability to drive change makes her one of the most influential figures on the world stage. In a time of global volatility, it is a time to take stock of how she will govern at the WTO.

In February 2019, we conducted a two-week-long interview on redefining leadership with Okonjo Iweala for our study on “Redefining Leadership in the Age of SDGs.”

"If you find problems, you must find solutions,” she often says. When we asked her about her favorite leadership philosophy, she told us: “Investing in women is smart economics, and investing in girls, catching them upstream, is even smarter economics.” She often turns to Nelson Mandela’s leadership for guidance. Her favorite quote is from that historic day on the evening of May 2, 1994, when Mandela claimed victory in the first democratic elections in South Africa: “I am your servant, I don’t come to you as leader… Leaders come and go, but the organization and the collective leadership that has looked after the fortunes and reverses of this organization will always be there.” Okonjo Iweala feels the same about being a servant leader, a servant leader who is also not afraid to cause trouble. She is also inspired by Desmond Tutu’s definition of the Ubuntu principles. It is a difficult concept to translate into English: “A person is a person through other people.” In Xhosa ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu, and in Zulu umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye means “I am human because I belong, I participate, and I share.” Recently, she sent us her favorite Igbo quote on leadership: “Aka nni kwo aka ekpe, aka ekpe akwo aka nni nwancha adi ocha”. Translated into English: "When the right hand washes the left hand, and the left hand washes the right hand, both are clean.” It speaks to helping each other, partnering, and sharing responsibility together.

A globalist and an African to the core, she sees new opportunities where others see challenges. She sees the problem of a “single story” about any region, especially Africa. The telecom revolution has created a mini-revolution in the area. Africa is ahead with mobile money-pay for solar with cards. Another innovation is the mitigating effects of climate change on 32 countries in Africa through the African Risk Capacity—the weather-based insurance initiative that Okonjo Iweala is heading. The idea she explained to us was for Africans to look for solutions in their own region.

Trained at Harvard and MIT as an economist, Okonjo Iweala served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria from 2003-2006 and 2011-2015, and as Nigeria’s Foreign Minister in 2006. She was the first woman to hold both positions. She has spent more than two decades at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the number-two position of managing director, which she served from 2007-2011. While at the World Bank, she was responsible for an $81 billion operational portfolio, including Europe and Central Asia, South Asia, and Africa. In 2012, she and Colombia’s Jose Antonio Ocampo squared off against American physician Jim Yong Kim in The World Bank’s first-ever contested presidential election. Although she was unable to break the traditional gentleman's agreement on the World Bank leadership, Okonjo Iweala helped to challenge business as usual with her candidacy and has laid the foundation for future challenges from non-Americans, especially from developing countries.

Okonjo Iweala was the head of the board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) Board. In this role, along with Larry Summers and the Ministers of Health of developing countries, she spearheaded crucial immunizations and health services to children, focusing on girls in developing countries. A pre-pandemic study in Health Affairs covering 73 GAVI-supported countries over the 2011-2020 period shows that for every US$1 spent on immunization, US$16 are saved in healthcare costs, lost wages, and lost productivity due to illness, and return on investment increases to US$ 44 when taking into account the broader benefits of people living longer and healthier lives. Also, Okonjo Iweala has used her role as chair for the Board of GAVI to introduce a new era of public-private partnerships between multilateral organizations, the private sector, civil society, developed and developing country governments.

As a development economist with a feminist perspective, Okonjo-Iweala implemented a budgetary incentive program that would motivate ministries to implement initiatives to empower girls and women in their sector. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Agriculture had developed a new e-wallet system, which transferred subsidies directly to farmers through the financial technology, removed the government from the supply changes, and allowed farmers to directly purchase the fertilizer and pesticides they needed. Seizing the moment, Okonjo-Iweala offered the ministry a budget increase as a reward for bringing this new, innovative technology to more women. Okonjo Iweala’s leadership efforts enabled 3 million women to participate in the e-wallet program in 2014. Furthermore, as Minister of Finance, Okonjo-Iweala was able to leverage the resources at her disposal to work with other ministers such as the Minister of Agriculture to bring technological and financial resources to women in rural areas. Additional achievements with budget-incentives include the Ministry of Water Resources developing a new system for women to manage their communities’ water and sanitation centers and the Ministry of Public Works developing a new training regimen to propel women into subcontractors' positions in procurement. Within Nigeria, she helped support entrepreneurial citizens through the You WIN Program, the GWiN program (Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria), and the Development Bank of Nigeria.

The greatest war she has fought has been against corruption. A 2002 African Union study estimated that corruption costs the continent roughly $150 billion a year. To compare, developed countries gave $22 billion in aid to sub-Saharan Africa in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It has been estimated that Nigeria has lost more than 600 billion to corruption since independence. This crusade has threatened her personal security. In 2012, Okonjo Iweala’s 83-year-old mother was kidnapped in retaliation for Okonjo Iweala’s leadership in anti-corruption policies and Nigerian government reform. The kidnappers demanded that Okonjo Iweala publicly resign from office. She did not, and her mother escaped. Okonjo Iweala discusses the danger of confronting deep-seated corruption in her most recent book, Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous (2018). Okonjo Iweala’s vision for macroeconomic reform in Africa considers and combines African culture and history. In Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria (2012), Okonjo Iweala presents a framework used by her and her team that stabilized the macroeconomy, increased economic growth and fiscal transparency, reduced the debt burden, strengthened the integrity of public and civil service, and redirected resources being siphoned to private interest back to the people and the poor. She also details the challenges and confronts head-on the daunting complexity of pushing for macroeconomic and development economic reform, as well as pushing back against corrupt trade, tariffs, and customs practices.

In her most recent co-authored book with Hon. Julia Gillard, Australia's first woman head of state, Okonjo Iweala analyzes leadership lessons of women leaders from Hillary Clinton to Jacinda Arden. At a time when women are helping to steer their countries out of the pandemic, as the first woman and first African to head the WTO, Okonjo Iweala is poised to bring these critical inclusive perspectives to the complex task of a global economic recovery.


NgoziOkonjo-Iweala is the fifth Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and delivered the Robert S. McNamara Lecture on War and Peace at Harvard in 2019.

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