2021 International Women’s Day: #ChooseToChallenge


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Continuously Shattering Glass Ceilings

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian-American economist and international development expert. She sits on the boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, and the African Risk Capacity. Known to break glass ceilings in her career path, she recently made history again as the first woman and African to be appointed as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. To commemorate the 2021 International Women’s Day celebration, Chiemelie Ezeobi profiles this amazon that stands tall and inspires million of young girls to aspire for greatness

This year, the theme for the annual International Women’s Day (IWD) was #ChooseToChallenge and what better way to mark it than to profile Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and international development expert, who recently put Nigeria on the global map by becoming the first female and first African to occupy the seat of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as the seventh director general.

Born on June 13, 1954 at Ogwashi-Ukwu in Delta State to Prof Chukwuka and Kamene Okonjo, the economist and international development expert sits on different boards including Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, and the African Risk Capacity (ARC)


Okonjo-Iweala was educated at Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, and the International School Ibadan. She further studied at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976 and in 1981, she earned her PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a thesis titled Credit policy, rural financial markets, and Nigeria’s agricultural development. She went on to receive an international fellowship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), that supported her doctoral studies.

Many Firsts

Okonjo-Iweala is known as a woman of many firsts. Asides being the first woman and first African to head the WTO, she was also the first woman to serve as Nigeria’s finance minister and the first woman to serve in that office twice. She was also the only finance minister to have served under two different presidents.

Career Path

Okonjo-Iweala had a 25-year career at the World Bank in Washington DC as a development economist, rising to the No. 2 position of Managing Director where she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded several World

Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008–2009 food crises, and later during the financial crisis.

In 2010, she was Chair of the IDA replenishment, the World Bank’s successful drive to raise $49.3 billion in grants and low interest credit for the poorest countries in the world. During her time at the World Bank, she was also a member of the Commission on Effective Development Cooperation with Africa, which was set up by the Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark.

In addition to her role in government, Okonjo-Iweala served on the Growth Commission (2006–2009), led by Nobel Prize winner Professor Michael Spence, and the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda(2012–2013). She also co-chaired the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation. In 2012, she was a candidate for President of the World Bank, running against Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim.

Career in Government

Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and also as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was the first female to hold both positions. During her first term as Minister of Finance under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of US$18 billion.

In 2003, she led efforts to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management including the implementation of an oil-price based fiscal rule. Revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price were saved in a special account called “The Excess Crude Account,” which helped to reduce macroeconomic volatility.

With the support of the World Bank and the IMF to the federal government, she helped build an electronic financial management platform—the Government Integrated Financial Management and Information System (GIFMIS), including the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), helping to curtail corruption in the process. As at 31 December 2014, the IPPIS platform had eliminated 62,893 ghost workers from the system and saved the government about $1.25 billion in the process.

Okonjo-Iweala was also instrumental in helping Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating (of BB minus) from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s in 2006. Following her first term as Minister of Finance, she served two months as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2006. She returned to the World Bank as a Managing Director in December 2007.

In 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was re-appointed as Minister of Finance in Nigeria with the expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy by President Goodluck Jonathan. Her legacy includes strengthening the country’s public financial systems and stimulating the housing sector with the establishment of the Mortgage Refinance Corporation (NMRC).

She also empowered women and youth with the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN); a gender-responsive budgeting system, and the highly acclaimed Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN); to support entrepreneurs, that created thousands of jobs.

This programme has been evaluated by the World Bank as one of the most effective of its kind globally. Under her leadership, the National Bureau of Statistics carried out a re-basing exercise of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the first in 24 years, which saw Nigeria emerge as the largest economy in Africa.


After leaving government, Okonjo-Iweala was also a member of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (2015–2016), chaired by Gordon Brown, and the Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance, which was established by the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors (2017–2018).

Since 2014, she has been co-chairing the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate, with Nicholas Stern and Paul Polman. In January 2016, she was appointed the Chair-elect of the Board of Gavi.

Since 2019, Okonjo-Iweala has been part of UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education, chaired by Sahle-Work Zewde. Also since 2019, she has also been serving on the High-Level Council on Leadership & Management for Development of the Aspen Management Partnership for Health (AMP Health).

In 2020, the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva appointed her to an external advisory group to provide input on policy challenges. Also in 2020, she was appointed by the African Union(AU) as special envoy to solicit international support to help the continent deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early 2021, Okonjo-Iweala was appointed as co-chair, alongside Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Lawrence Summers, of the High Level Independent Panel (HLIP) on financing the global commons for pandemic preparedness and response, which had been established by the G20.


Okonjo-Iweala is the founder of Nigeria’s first indigenous opinion-research organization, NOI-Polls and she also founded the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (C-SEA), a development research think tank based in Abuja, and is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Brookings Institution.

DG World Trade Centre

Not done in carving out history in her career trajectory, she aspired to head the World Trade Organisation and she is now. In June 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari nominated her as Nigeria’s candidate to be director-general of the WTO.

Recognitions and Awards

Okonjo-Iweala has received numerous recognition and awards. In 2005, Euromoney named her global finance minister of the year and in the same year, she was listed as one of the 50 Greatest World Leaders (Fortune, 2015).

She was also listed as the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World (TIME, 2014); the Top 100 Global Thinkers (Foreign Policy, 2011 and 2012); the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in the World (Forbes, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014); the Top three Most Powerful Women in Africa (Forbes, 2012); the Top 10 Most Influential Women in Africa (Forbes, 2011); the Top 100 Women in the World (The Guardian, 2011); the Top 150 Women in the World (Newsweek, 2011); the Top 100 most inspiring people in the World Delivering for Girls and Women (Women Deliver, 2011); and she was listed among 73 “brilliant” business influencers in the world by Condé Nast International.

In 2019, Okonjo-Iweala was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and she was also conferred High National Honours from the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire and the Republic of Liberia. She is also the recipient of Nigeria’s Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR).

Other honours include 2020 African of the year, Forbes Africa; 2017 – Vanguard Award, Howard University; 2017 – Women’s Economic Empowerment Award, WEConnect International; 2017 – Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Award, Aspen Institute; 2016 – Power with Purpose Award, Devex Development Communications Network; 2016 – Global Fairness Award, Global Fairness Initiative; 2014 – David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award; 2011 – President of the Italian Republic Gold Medal, Pia Manzu Centre; 2011 – Global Leadership Award, Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and 2010 – Global Leadership Award, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs;

Others include 2010 Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award; 2004 TIME’s European Heroes Award; 2004 – Finance Minister of the Year, Africa Investor Magazine; 2005 – Finance Minister of the Year for Africa and the Middle East; 2005 Global Finance Minister of the Year, Euromoney; and 2005 Finance Minister of the Year for Africa and the Middle East, Emerging Markets Magazine.

Honourary Degrees

Okonjo-Iweala has received honorary degrees from 14 universities worldwide, including some from the most prestigious colleges including University of Pennsylvania (2013); Yale University (2015); Amherst College (2009); Trinity College, Dublin (2007); Brown University (2006); Colby College (2007), and Northern Caribbean University, Jamaica.

She has also received degrees from a host of Nigerian universities including Abia State University, Delta State University, Abraka, Oduduwa University, Babcock University, and the Universities of Port Harcourt, Calabar, and Ife (Obafemi Awolowo university). In 2019, Okonjo Iweala was awarded an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University.

***Material used for this was sourced from Wikipedia