Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: The best president the World Bank never had

by Henry Eguridu

While she grumbles that the system for choosing the World Bank president is unfair, she and her principal forget that what goes around comes around; the best candidate doesn’t always win.

In the race to be World Bank president, she would have been likened to the proverbial 800 pound gorilla. And where does an 800 pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere. So when she tossed in her hat for the candidature, there was a quake  – she was widely endorsed by a majority of the emerging economies. As a matter of fact, she was the candidate of the African continent as they had put forward her name as the best qualified to represent Africa and challenge the West. She did say herself that she was the most qualified candidate, having worked at the World Bank for decades, including a stint as its second in command.

Her credentials are intimidating; educated at Harvard University; graduating magna cum laude, a Ph.D. in regional economic development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1981. Vice President and Corporate Secretary and later, Managing Director of the World Bank Group. Over qualified, you might add.

The West took notice of this, as well as respected media organisations such as the New York Times, The Economist, and UK Guardian who paid glowing tributes to her and urged the World Bank’s board to take a serious look at her, as they juxtaposed her candidature with those of Ocampo of Colombia and Kim who was the choice of the United States of America.

She was endorsed by 39 former staffers who wrote an open letter praising her deep experience in international and national issues in economic management. On paper, her opponents – the Colombian; Jose Antonio Ocampo and the Korean American, Dr. Jim Yong Kim stood no chance against her. Ocampo stepped down and endorsed her, leaving her to slug it out with Dr. Kim.

So while the 800 pound gorilla marched on, and others quaked, she was to be hamstrung by international political arithmetic and tradition; the US alone has nearly 16% of the vote. European Union countries have a further 29% while Japan, has 9% of the vote. They would always support a US nominated candidate, in order to preserve the long-standing informal equation which has ensured the World Bank is run by an American and the IMF by a European.

Her candidacy was rather symbolic, as it was more of the fact that, for the first time, she has made it possible to challenge the status quo with regards to the fact that a non-American was equally and even better qualified to lead the institution. Never in the Bank’s history have we witnessed a stumbling block to this monopoly. Together, with former Colombian finance minister Ocampo, Okonjo-Iweala has helped create the bank’s first-ever competitive race for the presidency. 

So, while she might have been a consummate insider of the World Bank and eminently qualified to lead it, the problem with her and the Bank is that Okonjo-Iweala looks at development from a fairly mainstream neoclassical perspective. This is made possible by the hijacking of these institutions by neo classical economists who favour the free market challenge to the interventionist’s policies of developing or underdeveloped countries. They have eroded the influence of such institutions as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) which more fully represent the views and correct problematization of the third world countries. 

The neoclassical economists argue that the third world is underdeveloped not because of the predatory activities of the first world and the international agencies that it controls, but rather because of the heavy hand of the state and corruption, inefficiency and the lack of economic incentives that permeate the economies of developing nations.

While she grumbles that the system for choosing the World Bank president is unfair, she and her principal forget that what goes around comes around; the best candidate doesn’t always win.

Her economic policy suffers from three major deficits: of relevance, credibility, and trust. Relevance, because her approach is too outdated to be relevant in a country where the vast majority are poor and need creative solutions to their predicaments. It suffers from relevance because there is also the emergence of an upwardly mobile class who are wielding significant economic clout and demanding reform of national institutions and sane economic policies and understand better the issues that affect their lives.

Credibility, because of her continuing reliance on Washington-consensus arguments that should have been ditched long ago because of their poor results.

Most Nigerians simply do not trust her or the World Bank (or the IMF) to protect their interests – in fact; these Breton woods institutions are seen as working against such interests.

For her economic policies to be effective, she must jettison her haughtiness. She needs to be more humble, and this humility should make her listen more and prescribe less. If she listens, she will discover that there is a large group of very poor who still need social and state protection; that market solutions can only work when the playing field becomes level for such groups, who have been left behind by the economic growth;  rather than chasing the latest development fads.

What is needed is the provision of a sane and plausible strategy for growing out of poverty rather than killing the patient with more destructive austerity measures.

You can handle me on twitter @oheguridu


Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija. 

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