For the first time in its history, the World Trade Organization will be helmed by a woman, with finalists for the role from Africa and Asia.
The Geneva-based intergovernmental organization tasked with regulating global trade agreements announced Thursday that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea were selected as the two finalists for the next director-general position.
The history-making shortlist of female candidates comes after current leader, Roberto Azevedo, announced in May he was stepping down from his post on Aug. 31, a year before his term ends. Azevedo cited family reasons, but his early resignation came as the WTO grappled with new trade challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and as the U.S. and China continue to spar over trade policies.
Okonjo-Iweala formerly served as the finance minister of Nigeria (where she was the first woman to hold that position) and has had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a developmental economist. At the World Bank, she rose to the second-in-command position of managing director of operations. During her time as Nigeria's finance minister, she is credited for negotiating the nation out of $30 billion in debt, according to a bio from the WTO.
Presently, Okonjo-Iweala serves as the chair of the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a group that has immunized some 760 million children globally. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Moreover, she has raised four children with her husband and now has three grandchildren.
"Happy to be in the final round of the @wto DG campaign," Okonjo-Iweala tweeted Thursday. "Thanks, WTO members for your continued support of my candidacy. I could not have made it without the prayers and support of all Nigerians and friends around the world."
If appointed director-general, Okonjo-Iweala would be the first African person -- man or woman -- to lead the WTO.
Yoo currently serves as South Korea's Minister for Trade, and is also the first woman to hold this role. She has a decorated 25-year career in trade and has been involved with the work of the WTO in Korea since 1995. She also briefly worked at the Korean Embassy in Beijing, China.
Yoo holds a master's degree in public policy from Korea's Seoul National University. She also holds a juris doctorate from Vanderbilt University in the U.S. and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 2003. She is married with two children.
The trade minister responded to the news on Twitter saying she was "deeply grateful and honored to be selected for the final round" in the selection process for the next director-general.
Alluding to the WTO's recent controversies, she added, "We need a capable & experienced new leader who can rebuild trust and restore relevance of the @WTO. I look forward to your continued support!"