World, Business, Politics

From the parallel universe: World Bank gets its first African president (and he’s a she)

By Greg Nicolson 17 April 2012

Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala won a milestone election on Monday as she became the first non-American president of the World Bank since the institution was founded in 1944. Historically a position reserved for white, American males, the bank rose above national and regional cronyism to appoint the best candidate. By GREG NICOLSON.

Okonjo-Iweala, current and former finance minister of Nigeria, managing director of the World Bank from 2007-11, was regarded as the ideal candidate to usher the institution into a changing global economy where developing countries are experiencing rapid growth. She was the only candidate with the core competencies – experience in government and development, as well as an understanding of macroeconomics and finance – and was backed by both The Economist and Financial Times.

The election of an African female is an overdue symbol of change. “Emerging and developing countries are contributing more than 50% of global growth! If it were not for the growth in developing countries, developed countries would be much, much worse off. So why are developing countries left out of the governance equation?” asked.

Okonjo-Iweala in the lead-up to the election. The US has traditionally appointed the World Bank president who takes a European deputy and vice versa at the International Monetary Fund. Okonjo-Iweala said she will use her experience working in the Nigerian government and at the World Bank to focus on core developmental issues. “Three major challenges – creating jobs, investing in the human capital of the poor and building institutions – have to be pursued with vigour,” she wrote in the Financial Times.

So the narrative might have gone had the presidential selection process been fair.

Okonjo-Iweala stood little chance as Barack Obama’s candidate, Dr Jim Yong Kim, predictably took the spoils on Monday as the United States, the World Bank’s largest shareholder, maintained its unilateral control.

Despite the third candidate, Columbia’s former finance minister José Antonio Ocampo, withdrawing from the race as developing nations lobbied behind Okonjo-Iweala, the deal was sealed when Russia announced it would back Kim. Europe, the US and Japan hold over half the voting seats on the 25-member board. Kim will take over when Robert B Zoellick finishes his five-year term in July.

Obama picked Kim out of left field and he was portrayed by some as unqualified and by others as a welcome change. He headed the World Health Organisation’s HIV/Aids team and was a pioneer of medical trials before establishing Partners in Health, offering health services in countries with limited access. Most recently he’s been the president of Dartmouth University. He was notoriously the only candidate not to address an open forum before the vote but was billed as “a refreshing change from the bankers, business executives and politicians who have long led the bank” by supporters.

Photo: Barack Obama’s candidate, Dr Jim Yong Kim. REUTERS. 

The validity of Kim’s credentials aside, both Okonjo-Iweala and South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan criticised the selection process on Monday. “You know this thing is not really being decided on merit,” Okonjo-Iweala told reporters before the vote. “It is voting with political weight and shares and therefore the United States will get it.”

Speaking to the Foreign Correspondents’ Association, Gordhan said he had doubts as to whether the bank had improved transparency. He welcomed the race being opened to multiple candidates but questioned “whether the process subsequent to that has followed through on the basis of democratic tenets”. “I think we’re going to find this process falls short of these criteria.”

The World Bank can hardly afford to block the best candidates. With 9,000 staff, a loan portfolio of $258 billion and $43 billion in new loans and grants in 2011, it’s one of the world’s key developmental organisations. It must adjust to the increasing influence of developing countries while Western economies slow down. And it faces global threats to sustainability, such as climate change, and the question of how to promote growth while reducing poverty. Appointing the best leaders would be a good start.

But Okonjo-Iweala was confident on Monday her nomination was a success. “It will never ever be the same again,” she said. “So we have won a big victory. Who gets to run the World Bank – we have shown we can contest this thing and Africa can produce people capable of running the entire architecture.”

Yet developing nations may not wait until the institution implements a transparent, merit-based system. “If this is not done, there will be less interest in these institutions and people will go make their own. For instance, the Brics are talking about making their own development bank,” said Okonjo-Iweala before the election.

Perhaps the idea of someone from outside the West leading a major development institution isn’t so far-fetched and one day our headline will be more than just a fiction. DM



Photo: Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. REUTERS. 

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