Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala loses out and still stands tall

African Update – 11/05/12

The dream of African and many developing countries to have Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala become the presiding chief of the World Bank was given a rude awakening when Barack Obama, President of the United States, nominated Jim Yong Kim to counter her run. Not surprisingly, the US nominee was duly accepted by the Board of the World Bank as its next President.

A graduate of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ngozi is a globally acclaimed and astute economist from Nigeria. She is the Finance Minister of the West African country and has many years of working experience as one of the Managing Directors of the World Bank. In 2006 she was touted as a possible replacement for Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank President then. It was however not until this year 2012 that she gave it her best shot in a race to replace outgoing President Robert Zoellick.

The appointment of Ngozi would have been a great achievement not only for her, but for gender parity, the developing world and Africa in particular. From all indications, she was best qualified and favoured by the developing world especially Africa and South America. Professor José Antonio Ocampo of Columbia University who was another major contestant and backed by many South American countries gave up in support of her candidature. 

Even though the World Bank represents 186 countries, only the few countries who fund it decide at Board level those who run its senior management, obviously to perpetrate their interests and policies. It was therefore unlikely for the US to favour a candidate from anywhere else, least of all from Africa. China remained silent of course. Although Kim is a US citizen, it is clear the US ingratiated Asia by choosing a Korean-American. The European Union has its trade-off at the IMF and was expected to adhere to their traditional support for the US.

Ngozi’s bold and courageous attempt to break this unfair practice of selecting only US citizens to head the World Bank was in itself a powerful message that Africa and the developing world are no longer willing to sit idly by in side-rooms. Instead, they are ready to take part and contribute at the top level in a Bank that has been responsible for major development programmes in the developing world, some with great success, many others with negative effects like the Structural Adjustment Policies which devastated local economies, replacing them with cheap subsidized imported products and instead of eliminating poverty, rather perpetrated and deepened it.

In its editorial in support of the candidature of Ngozi the Economist was unforgiving of the World Bank.  "When economists from the World Bank visit poor countries to dispense cash and advice," it noted, "they routinely tell governments to reject cronyism and fill each important job with the best candidate available. It is good advice. The World Bank should take it." But they did not, like in George Orwell’s Animal farm, different rules apply depending on whose interest is at stake.

Some observers are, however, of the opinion that Ngozi’s presidency of the World Bank would not have made any significant difference in reforming the World Bank to be proactively more favourable to the developing world and help eliminate poverty as it claims to be doing. They believe that “she is a student of its present culture and rhetoric.” In an editorial critique by the titled “an African president of the world bank is not the solution, when the bank itself is the problem”, they argued that “Having Okonjo-Iweala play the subaltern saviour of the World Bank would only serve to further justify the Bank’s odious economic policies and other transgressions against the poor. Emerging economies must recognise their complicity in the ‘Washington consensus’ that has developed within post-colonial economics and take action to change it.”

In the view of the, instead of Africans “clamouring for recognition from the World Bank, African countries would do better by systematically extricating themselves from dependency on the bank’s money and ideas. They should concentrate on diversifying and strengthening their access to alternative competing structures for development finance, such as the African Development Bank or BRICS investments. This is especially important in the current African economic cycle, which has seen promising growth, the benefits of which must be distributed to Africans through aggressive borrowing strategies for infrastructure, education and healthcare. Too much damage has been done to these economies in the past serving the demands of the IMF for an over-prudential approach in macroeconomic policy.”

It is perhaps in recognition of this fact that many African countries are now turning to China as a major trading partner. This in itself is a major ideological shift for African governments who have come to realise that their former colonialists can still not understand and recognise them as equal partners. Some analyses even demonstrate that if the China-Africa cooperation continues in the way it is currently, the future will see Africa divorcing itself from shackles of the World Bank and its cohort the IMF.

Until then, Ngozi’s audacious attempt has marked a turning point for the developing world to agitate for greater inclusion and gender equality. In winning such wide support from Africa and the developing world, she has shown the way for the future. In her congratulatory message to Kim, she said that “by our participation we have won important victories. We have shown what is possible. Our credible and merit-based challenge to a long-standing and unfair tradition will ensure that the process of choosing a World Bank President will never be the same again. The struggle for greater equity and fairness has reached a critical point and the hands of the clock cannot be turned back.”

Indeed, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala may have lost the race for the World Bank presidency but she definitely stands tall for daring to take on the challenge. It is the first time ever that a non-American candidate and an African for that matter have offered such serious challenge to the routine of appointing US candidates. Africa, after all, does have the quality and capability of running the World Bank infrastructure. It is a point Ngozi and all those who supported her have made loudly clear to the rest of the world.

Author: Stephen Atalebe, African student of Economics, Mendel University Brno, Czech Republic(For Humanitas Afrika)

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