Who’s bidding to be next World Trade Organization chief?


The World Trade Organization (WTO) began the process this month of selecting a new director-general to replace Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, who is stepping down a year early at the end of August.

Nominations are open until July 8 and four nominees have so far been received from Egypt, Mexico, Nigeria and Moldova, according to WTO documents.

Azevedo’s successor will need to steer reforms and negotiations in the face of rising protectionism, a deep recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and growing trade tensions, notably between the United States and China.

The Geneva-based body normally takes nine months to choose a new chief, but now wants to do so in three. It prefers to pick a chief by consensus, moving to a vote only as a last resort.

Below is a summary of possible candidates:

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria), board chair of global vaccine alliance Gavi

Okonjo-Iweala, 65, is an economist and development specialist who has served as Nigeria’s foreign minister and finance minister and as a managing director of the World Bank. The former Harvard and MIT student’s work has involved efforts to make immunisation programmes financially sustainable.

WTO reported her nomination on June 9. A document showed she has regional backing from West Africa.

Abuja had previously backed another of its nationals, Yonov Frederick Agah, in a process via the African Union that was supposed to nominate a single African candidate.

Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt), currently Geneva-based lawyer

Former trade negotiator for Egypt and ex-WTO official who helped draft an agreement on trade in services in the landmark Uruguay Round deal – an experience that he said gave him essential “bridge-building” skills.

Mamdouh, 67, is currently advising the G20 presidency, Saudi Arabia, on trade and investment matters.

WTO confirmed his candidacy on June 9.

Amina Mohamed, (Kenya) sport and culture minister

Mohamed, 58, is a former Kenyan ambassador to the WTO who was the first woman to chair the WTO’s General Council in 2005.

She ran for the director general post unsuccessfully in 2013. Her CV says she speaks four languages, has a law degree and is an “excellent strategist and visionary” who has advocated broad participation in the WTO reform process.

She did not respond to a request for comment.

Arancha Gonzalez Laya (Spain), Spanish foreign minister

A lawyer, she served as chief of staff to then-WTO chief Pascal Lamy between 2005 and 2013. Trade officials say she may be unacceptable to the U.S. administration given strained relations with Washington under Lamy’s leadership.

Asked about her potential candidacy, she said she had a “full plate” with her current job.

Phil Hogan (Ireland), European trade commissioner

He is in his second role as a European commissioner, previously covering agriculture, and confirmed he was considering a bid. A politician of the centre-right Fine Gael party, he has also served as a minister in two Irish governments.

He advocates reform at the WTO, agreeing with the United States and Japan on the need to update global rules on industrial subsidies. But his own relations with Washington have been less cordial amid persistent transatlantic trade tension.

Tudor Ulianovschi, (Moldova) former minister of foreign affairs

Ulianovschi, fluent in four languages, was foreign minister between 2018-2019 and was formerly a diplomat and has some experience in the private sector.

The WTO confirmed his candidacy on June 16.

Jesus Seade (Mexico), 73, senior trade official in Mexican government

Mexico nominated Seade, who helped rework the North American Free Trade Agreement, to the WTO on June 8, a document showed. He previously worked at universities in Hong Kong.