The Global South Needs Power and Resources, Not Empty Representation

Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is rumored to be the next president of the World Trade Organization. But placing an African woman at the top of the powerful institution will do little if it continues to push neoliberal policies that harm workers and farmers across the Global South.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (L) sits with Christine Lagarde (R), then IMF managing director and currently the president of the European Central Bank, on a panel during the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in 2017. (Stephen Jaffe / IMF)

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance and foreign minister of Nigeria, is widely expected to become the next head of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Okonjo-Iweala was in the running for president of the World Bank in 2012 before the former US president Barack Obama chose an American man, Jim Yong Kim, for the position. During her campaign for president of the World Bank — and now for the WTO — many commentators have heralded the importance of having a black African woman at the head of a major international financial institution, with one characterizing it as “a defining moment for Africa, long under the boot of foreign powers and financial institutions.” The Pan-African left must, however, reject the politics of representation for representation’s sake. If the point is to have a black African woman provide cover for the same neoliberal policies that have hindered economic development in Africa, then such representation is counterproductive.

Along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the WTO forms part of the “Unholy Trinity” of international institutions that govern global trade and the financial system to the benefit of major multinational corporations and their shareholders, and to the detriment of ecosystems and workers everywhere. The WTO was created in 1995 at the height of post–Cold War neoliberal triumphalism. It replaced the looser General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) with a permanent organization that could more easily sanction countries that tried to restrict foreign trade, most notoriously by giving foreign investors the ability to sue states under an opaque arbitration process. The GATT had allowed Global South governments to implement modest forms of infant industry protection and other trade restrictions for development purposes. The US and European governments sought to weaken these provisions and extend principles of free trade to services and intellectual property. A global coalition of labor and environmental groups famously stunned the organization with protests that disrupted its annual meeting in Seattle in 1999.

Despite being hailed as a “development round” — ostensibly focused on the needs of the poorest nations — the latest series of global trade negotiations stalled as governments in the Global South, led by India and China, resisted further opening their markets to North American, Western European, and Japanese capital. They also insisted that governments in the Global North open their markets to agricultural exports from the South by reducing trade barriers, especially their massive subsidies to domestic agribusiness.

The question for the next head of the WTO is therefore: Whose side are you on? Will Okonjo-Iweala put an African face on the North’s agenda to expand free trade and reinforce the power of major multinationals, or fight for the right of Southern governments to subordinate international trade to their own domestic development priorities? While the Nigerian government has a reputation for protectionism — one that proponents of the African Continental Free Trade Area fear may scuttle the project — Okonjo-Iweala is known as an orthodox economist with a decades-long career at the World Bank. Her candidacy for World Bank president was endorsed by the likes of the Economist and the Financial Times, hardly the friends of Africa’s workers and peasants.

Okonjo-Iweala’s record in office has provoked the ire of the Nigerian left. Many opposed her first major act as finance minister: a deal with the Paris Club — a grouping of Western and Japanese official creditors — to restructure Nigeria’s foreign debt in 2003. She negotiated a reduction of Nigeria’s debt from approximately US$35 billion to $17.4 billion, including an immediate payment of $12.4 billion. Many Nigerian progressives argued that since the debt was contracted by corrupt military dictatorships and the lenders knew that the funds would be stolen, the people of Nigeria should not have had to repay a single dollar. The debt was odious and should have been repudiated. The billions in repayments could have paid for teachers, nurses, and infrastructure instead.

In her second stint as finance minister, Okonjo-Iweala became the public face of the deeply unpopular decision to remove the subsidies on fuel in January 2012, which led to a doubling of transport prices overnight and a sharp rise in the cost of living. Millions of Nigerians felt that the fuel subsidy was the only benefit they received from their country’s vast oil wealth, and did not trust their political leaders to reallocate funds to social spending as they were promising. The move sparked a national strike and the Occupy Nigeria protests, joined by artists and writers like Seun Kuti, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe.

In the decades since the end of formal colonialism, many Africans have learned (the hard way) that having leaders that look and sound like you matters little if they pursue policies that hurt most of your fellow citizens. The selection of Okonjo-Iweala — or any other candidate — to head the WTO matters only to the extent that their leadership opens space for developing countries to pursue industrial policies. The hope is that a WTO President from the Global South would be more sympathetic to the challenges posed by the global trading system to peripheral economies, but Okonjo-Iweala’s record does not inspire much confidence in this regard. While the “gentlemen’s agreement” between the US and European governments whereby the head of the International IMF is always a European and the head of the World Bank an American is unjustifiable, the Pan-African left should push for a more equitable global economy, not simply more “black faces in high places.”