The biggest shock appointment of the year so far isn’t England manager Roy Hodgson, but an overlooked Nigerian who should have taken top job at the World Bank
Africa wanted her, Brazil wanted her, senior staff of the World Bank wanted her and even outgoing president Robert Zoellick wanted her. And yet the next president of the World Bank, replacing Zoellick, will not be Nigeria’s reforming, female Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala but yet another American appointee.
Although eminent in his field, incoming president Jim Yong Kim isn’t even a finance guy. His area of expertise are the ‘big diseases’ such as malaria that affect developing nations. Despite his name, Yong Kim is very much American. Emigrating from Korea with his parents as a child, he’s a former varsity baseballer, footballer and president of Dartmouth College.
Made in the USA
While the World Bank funds a lot of health projects, it’s first and foremost a bank that finances all kinds of socially beneficial infrastructure in the developing world. And because the bank lends some $57bn a year, it needs the big-picture financial and economic skills that Okono-Iweala can provide.
The overall result is the World Bank remains dominated by the US, with all of its 12 presidents being American men (Sir James Wolfensohn, president between 1995-2005, was born in Australia but became an American citizen). Even the third candidate, former Colombian finance minister José Antonio Ocampo, would have been a better choice than Kim. Although he’s now an economics professor at Columbia University, Ocampo has a much-admired record as a development economist and was the favourite of many international economists and central bankers.
The perfect candidate
By most standards however, Okonjo-Iweala was the superior candidate. With a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: she has the academic qualifications. She has proved herself under fire. It was the 57 year-old mother of four who courted personal danger as finance minister of corruption-ridden Nigeria between 2003-2006 with a series of bold reforms that among other things wiped $18bn off public debt.
In a somewhat miraculous achievement, she even got Nigeria its first sovereign debt rating. In her second, current stint as finance minister, she has earned widespread vilification by eliminating the cripplingly expensive, often bogus oil subsidies that routinely go to placemen and others in the supply chain. Okonjo-Iweala even has the requisite World Bank experience, having worked at all levels of the institution right up to managing director.
And she has the life experience. A village girl, she came through the Nigerian civil war, half-starved, sleeping rough and once narrowly escaping death when she was trapped in open ground during an air raid. “She would be the outstanding World Bank president [that] the times call for,” declared an open letter signed by 39 senior economists and staffers at the institution.
A quick fix
So how did it happen? There are 184 members of the World Bank but the US holds the most votes, despite mounting complaints that this does not represent the fast-changing state of the world. Summing up general opinion, Daniel Bradlow, economic analyst at South Africa’s Pretoria University, believes America simply snubbed its nose at those complaints. “America showed its contempt, in that it didn’t really care,” he said. “This was not a process based on merit.”
Iweala took it well, saying that even her candidacy was a vote for Africa, but not one to brush things under the carpet, called for a more open and transparent election process next time around. A shame that’s another five years away.