Former Belgian politician Isabelle Durant is taking over as acting head of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad).

She began the role on 16 February after serving as the organisation’s deputy secretary general from July 2017.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres appointed Durant to the role to ensure a smooth transition as he conducts a permanent recruitment process.

Previous Unctad chief Mukhisa Kituyi stepped down on 15 February after nearly eight years in the position.

"I'm deeply honoured to lead Unctad at this critical time as countries all over the world battle a deadly pandemic and the worst economic crisis in nearly a century," Durant said.

"I’m committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure the people we serve are supported during this crisis and feel us by their side on the path to recovery."

Unctad is seen as the most important UN organisation for shipping after the International Maritime Organization.

The 195 member states are due to attend a meeting in Barbados in October.

Greener and more inclusive

Durant has been an advocate for more inclusive and greener international trade, as well as gender equality.

She has been heavily involved in the socio-economic response of the UN to the coronavirus crisis and has led the work of Unctad in this area, the UN body said.

This covered a broad range of issues including finance, technology, investment and sustainable development.

Durant is a former vice prime minister and senator of Belgium, as well as a ex-vice president of the European parliament.

"She is well known for her acute skills in empowering people, addressing vulnerabilities at local and national levels and supporting governments towards good governance and sustainable policies," Unctad said.

Ministerial experience

Durant also served as minister of transport and energy in Belgium for four years.

Born there in 1954, the acting head holds a master’s degree in economic and social policy from the Universite Catholique de Louvain.

In November, Unctad warned maritime trade would plunge by 4.1% over 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And it said further waves of infections could cause an even steeper decline.

The virus sent shock waves through supply chains, shipping networks and ports, leading to plummeting cargo volumes and falling growth prospects, the agency said in its Review of Maritime Transport 2020.

But Unctad added that although the short-term outlook for maritime trade is grim, the shipping industry can be at the heart of economic and trade recovery in the future.

Unctad predicted maritime trade could expand by 4.8% in 2021 if world economic output rebounds with methods to control the virus.