Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and former finance minister of Nigeria, appears set to become the next director general of the World Trade Organization, with the Biden administration announcing its “strong support” for her candidacy on Friday. She would be the first woman and the first African national to lead the organization.
Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister who was also a finalist for the role, said on Friday that she planned to withdraw herself from consideration, leaving the path open for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, The Associated Press reported.
The two women were announced as finalists for the trade organization’s top job in October, whittled down from a group of eight candidates over several months, with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala emerging as the person with the broadest support, the W.T.O. said at the time.
But because the organization, a trade-regulation body that has existed in its current form since 1995, requires that none of its 164 members oppose the choice, President Donald J. Trump, who supported Ms. Yoo and said he would not back the candidacy of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, was able to hold up the process, according to the W.T.O. statement.
In a statement on Friday, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said Dr. Okonjo-Iweala “is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”
“It is particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of W.T.O. director general — the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution,” the statement said.
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Dr. Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s finance minister, spent 25 years at the World Bank as a development economist and now is the chairwoman of the Center for Global Development, according to the center’s website.
Molly Toomey, a spokeswoman for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, said on Friday that she “congratulates Yoo Myung-hee on her long campaign and welcomes South Korea’s commitment to rebuilding and enhancing multilateralism.”
“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is eager to focus on the many needed reforms at the W.T.O.,” Ms. Toomey said. “She is humbled by the support she has received from W.T.O. members and of champions in Nigeria and other parts of the world.”
The search for someone to fill the top job started after the former director general, Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil, announced last May that he would be leaving the job a year early, citing personal reasons and a desire to give W.T.O. members a head start on choosing his replacement. He left on Aug. 31 without a successor, The A.P. reported.
If approved, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would enter an organization that has been crippled by actions of the Trump administration, which had refused to approve nominees to fill vacancies on a panel charged with resolving trade disputes.
Mr. Trump defied the organization’s principles by starting a trade war with China. He also threatened to pull the United States out of the trade body, which he repeatedly accused of unfair treatment of the United States.
Global trade has been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and Ms. Toomey said that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was eager to conclude the selection process so the trade group could “turn its focus to the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic recovery.”
In its statement, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said the Biden administration “looks forward to working with a new W.T.O. director general to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the W.T.O.”