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Fighting for Sustainability in the Economic System

World Trade Organization director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala joined President Sylvia Burwell to discuss global economic policy and celebrate a landmark agreement designed to create a more equitable fishing sector.

AU president Sylvia Burwell and WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala discuss the global economy at SIS.WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala discusses the global economy at SIS. (Jeffrey Watts/AU)

By Jonathan Heeter

World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala came to Washington, DC, for the spring World Bank meetings amid economic turmoil caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, a recent banking crisis, and peaking inflation. 

But Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO’s first female and first African director-general, entered a crowded SIS atrium on April 12 for a discussion with AU president Sylvia Burwell with a sense of optimism. 

The day before her visit to AU, Okonjo-Iweala secured US acceptance of the WTO’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, which is designed to fight harmful fishing subsidies and overfishing. The US was the fourth WTO member—and first large fishing nation—to sign the agreement. 

Okonjo-Iweala told Burwell that she hoped buy-in from the US will lead a wave of signatures to the agreement—the WTO’s first pact focused on environmental sustainability. 

“My first objective [this week] was to accomplish something. To have the United States come early to the game, [as] one of the world’s largest fishing economies, is a signal [for other countries to join the agreement],” she said. 

Okonjo-Iweala visited campus for a chat with the AU community about the global economy as the world’s financial heavyweights gathered in DC for the World Bank meetings. She made her first trip to campus since May 2022 when she addressed SIS graduates at commencement. 

“We know you were given what you probably think is your most important honorary degree [here],” joked Burwell, who also presented Okonjo-Iweala with a portrait that will hang in the SIS atrium commemorating her visits. A joyful Okonjo-Iweala said she felt like a member of the AU family when she saw the photo.  

Burwell told the crowd she first met Okonjo-Iweala while working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the early 2000s. Burwell was trying to increase productivity for smallholder farmers. The two have worked together on agricultural and health issues in Africa in the years since. 

"You were incredible counsel and help,” Burwell told Okonjo-Iweala. 

Okonjo-Iweala has continued trailblazing economic work since those first conversations, establishing herself as a global authority on economic policy. She twice served as Nigeria’s finance minister, worked on United Nations commissions, and spent 25 years at the World Bank. 

Despite progress on the fisheries agreement, Okonjo-Iweala remained more circumspect in other aspects of global trade. 

She said tensions between China and US remain high and may not improve soon. She has also noticed a rise in backlash against global trade led by politicians. A fragmentation of world trade could disproportionately affect developing countries, she said.  

“Trade integration has helped the world to achieve great poverty reduction and improvement in living standards,” said the Harvard University and MIT graduate. “We know it can’t do everything. . . that some people are left behind. But we need to fix that, not throw away the system.” 

Okonjo-Iweala visited Capitol Hill a few weeks ago to promote the WTO’s work and open trade. She met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Ron Johnson (R-WI) and representatives James Clyburn (D-SC), Mike Gallagher (R-WI), Darin LaHood (R-IL), and Gregory Meeks (D-NY). Okonjo-Iweala said even those who disagreed on the best system for trade remained respectful and listened to her pitch. 

“Some [politicians] are focused on domestic issues,” she said. “If the multilateral trading system did not exist, if the WTO did not exist, the opportunity cost would be so huge. . . . Seventy-five percent of world trade still takes place on WTO terms.”