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“Give the WTO a chance”: Trade organization’s new boss opens up on her new job

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African to become director-general of the World Trade Organization, forged her strength through traumas few political leaders could imagine — let alone endure.

Driving the news: In a remarkable interview with "Axios on HBO" — her first extended, in-person TV interview since taking the job in March — the MIT-trained economist and development expert opened up about her nearly "impossible job" and the experiences that shaped her, including her mother's kidnapping.

The big picture: At the end of our hourlong conversation, Ngozi made a direct plea to President Biden and China's Xi Jinping: "Give the WTO a chance."

Why it matters: You'll hear a lot more about Ngozi in the years ahead. As she admits, she's taken on "almost an impossible job" of reviving the WTO. The institution, which governs the rules of international trade, is badly broken.

  • Because the organization operates on consensus, all 164 member countries — including the increasingly hostile U.S. and China — need to agree to major reforms.
  • The WTO hasn't concluded a successful round of trade negotiations in more than 20 years. But it's the only institutional obstacle to uncontrollable trade wars that could easily spiral into more dangerous hostilities.

Details: Ngozi has a resume unlike any of the six men who previously ran the WTO. She grew up during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s and her family fled government troops.

  • She moved to the United States as a teenager, studied at Harvard and got a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She's often referred to by colleagues as "Dr. Ngozi."
  • She rose through the ranks of the World Bank, had four children and then left behind a comfortable bureaucratic life in Washington, D.C., to return to Nigeria to serve twice as finance minister and as minister of foreign affairs.

Between the lines: Many rooted for her success. Others wanted to kill her.In 2012, criminals kidnapped her 83-year-old mother at gunpoint. When recalling this experience, her voice cracked.

  • They didn't ask for a cash ransom, instead demanding that Ngozi resign her post as finance minister on live television. She seriously considered resigning, but her father insisted she stay in her job and ultimately the kidnappers released her mother.

More highlights from the interview:

1. On the difficulty of her job: "Yes, it could be termed that, an impossible job. But I see the possibility to turn around an organization that can really do good for people, that can live up to its purpose, you know. So maybe I'm a masochist, you know, and I like challenges."

2. On China still claiming it's a "developing country" to get special treatment at the WTO: "When the organization was designed, I think there were some serious design faults. It was left to countries to describe themselves any way they wanted."

3. On America's slide toward protectionism under both Donald Trump and Joe Biden: "I would hope that all countries, China, the United States, would move away and not get into a protectionist mood because that was why this organization was created in the first place, to make rules of the game that would lead to more liberalization of trade."

4. On whether intellectual property waivers would be enough to solve the global vaccine distribution crisis: "No, no, no, no. I've been very clear. … I've said it's not enough."

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