Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, new head of WTO, shatters glass ceiling

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first person from Africa to lead the World Trade Organization. CBS News reporter and producer Haley Ott spoke with the former Nigerian finance minister about her plans for the WTO.

Video Transcript

- And Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made history twice when she was named Director General of the World Trade Organization last month. Not only is she the first woman to hold the position. She's also the first person from Africa to lead the organization. CBS News reporter and producer Haley Ott spoke with the former Nigerian finance minister about her plans for the WTO.

HALEY OTT: For many Americans, the first time they heard of the World Trade Organization-- it was when former President Trump threatened to leave it. Why is the WTO important? And in a time of increasing nationalism, how do you keep it relevant?

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, thank you, Haley. The WTO is important because its rules underpin the multilateral trading system, meaning it provides a forum where every country can come and discuss and negotiate trade agreements and also a place for dispute settlement.

HALEY OTT: President Biden has rescinded America's threat to leave the WTO, but he hasn't completely abandoned President Trump's approach to trade. He's said that his policy will prioritize Americans and American workers. Does that worry you?

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Not at all. And actually, I want to commend the United States because it never actually left the WTO. It had problems with it, but the US paid its share of the budget and still remained a member. And I'm so glad that President Biden has stated that he wants to revive multilateralism, and support of the WTO is one of the ways to do that.

HALEY OTT: China is a member of the World Trade Organization, and it's been accused of using WTO structures to unfairly benefit itself to the detriment of some other members, including the United States. What do you say to critics who say that the WTO has been unable to ensure fair global trade in regards to China?

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: WTO members have issues that they want to settle with each other. I think that we work hard at the secretariat to support them so that these issues can be dealt with. We do have some rules about making sure that unfair subsidies are not given. We have to look and see, are those rules still fit for purpose in this modern age with things evolving? Do we need to make new rules to deal with that?

HALEY OTT: You've said that trade and the WTO can help the world address the coronavirus pandemic, which has decimated economies globally. How can trade help deal with the pandemic?

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: It's unconscionable that there are countries in the world, over 130, who have not even started vaccinating any of their-- any of-- of their people. It's in the self-interest of the whole world to have everyone vaccinated, so we can help work with manufacturers to see what more sites they can bring in in developing countries and emerging markets to increase supply.

The WTO can also look at trade. How countries to help with the recovery? Are there areas where we can liberalize trade more among our members so that we can trade? And that will lift up some countries. It will contribute to the recovery.

HALEY OTT: Some countries have suggested waiving some intellectual property rights to make new technologies accessible for manufacture around the world. Would you support that policy?

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Let me say this, Haley-- people need to understand what is behind this demand because poor countries watched during the HIV/AIDS crisis. They could not get hold of drugs. They were too expensive, $10,000, unaffordable. And people died. It was 10 years before they were able to get access to produce these drugs generics to save lives. That memory hurts.

The second issue is the fact that the H1N1 pandemic or epidemic that occurred in 2008, '09-- rich countries bought up all the vaccines, and poor countries had no access. So that lies behind this desire to have the intellectual property waved for all to have access.

Now, that debate is going on. It will be decided among members, but we need to know why it's important. And we need to come to some sustainable agreement. But for now I've advocated what people-- I've called it third way, which is we need to boost manufacturing right away so that we can have increased supplies. So it's not one or the other. I've always said, we can walk and chew gum.

HALEY OTT: Finally, it's Women's History Month. You are the first woman to be the head of the World Trade Organization and the first African person. What does that mean to you, and what obstacles still need to be addressed?

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, it means a lot to me. I-- I love being the first female and the first African. But I always tell people, that's not the most important fact. The fact is that the WTO is facing many challenges, and it needs the most competent person to help it come out of those challenges and find solutions. So that's the important thing. And well, you know, I'm humbled that people have selected not only the first African and the first female but someone they believe has the competence to try and deliver.