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First Female World Bank Chief?


On Friday 23rd of March, Angola, Nigeria and South Africa endorsed Nigeria’s finance minister for the position of the World Bank president as it became open following the plan by the current president, Robert Zoellick to step down in June. Taking advantage of the open contest for the post, unlike what was obtained in the past where the U.S under an informal agreement with its allies lay claim to the post, the African countries cited Mrs. Iweala’s brilliant performance as an economist as reasons for her nomination. She joined former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, who was nominated by Brazil as a top contender for the top position of the Bretton Woods Institution. Okonjo Iweala’s performance and credentials as well Ocampos’ is said to have put pressure on the American government which resulted to the nomination of Jim Yong Kim, a health professional and president of Dartsmouth College for the World Bank job.

As the competition heats up with Jim Yong Kim embarking on a world tour and campaign for the position and Brazil throws its full weight behind Ocampo, let me imagine that by some sheer luck, Mrs. Iweala, the only woman in the race for this job is the right candidate and large voting block or not, she will prevail against the U.S choice Yong Kim. As a feminist, a part of me actually would love to see a woman sit at the top of the helm of affairs at world bank, harsh realities and political intrigues aside. This article will attempt to highlight the achievements of this erudite economist and find out what makes her special or stand out from her fellow competitors.


Born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria, she was educated at Harvard University where she graduated in 1977, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she obtained her PhD in Urban and Regional Planning. She joined the World Bank in 1982 through the through the prestigious Young Professionals Program and made a career of over 20 years there working on various operational regions from the Middle East and North Africa, to East Asia and Africa. She rose through the ranks from an Economist to Vice President and Corporate Secretary. During her time at the World Bank, she has held positions of Development Economist, Vice-president, Operations, 1989 – 91; Director of Institutional Change and Strategy, 1995 – 97; Country Director, Malaysia, Mongolia, Laos and Cambodia, 1997 – 2000; Deputy Vice-president, Middle East Region, 2000 – 2003. In June, 2006, she was Managing Director, World Bank till July 2011. Mrs. Iweala has had a proven record in turning economies around. She was also instrumental in launching an emergency fund to for poor countries hit by a record jump in global food prices in 2008, and was pivotal in creating an infrastructure facility for roads, railways and power grids in developing and helped them tap financial markets and fund development.

In Nigeria where she was wooed by the then president Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003 to serve as finance minister and head of the presidential economic team, she led the team that negotiated the cancellation of US $18 billion or 60 percent of Nigeria’s external debt with the Paris Club in October 2005. The debt deal also included an innovative buy-back mechanism that wiped out Nigeria’s Paris club debt and reduced the country’s external indebtedness from US$35 to US$5 billion. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala oversaw Nigeria’s first ever Sovereign credit rating of BB- from Fitch and Standard and Poor’s—a rating that grouped Nigeria with other emerging market countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, Venezuela, and Philippines.She attacked corruption and accelerated privatisation and liberalisation. She signed Nigeria up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a voluntary standard for petroleum and mining industries. On her watch, Nigeria’s inflation more than halved.


A passionate reformist, she tried to bring transparency into the Nigerian system that had been damaged by years of corruption and mismanagement. She introduced the practice of publishing each state’s monthly financial allocation from the federal government in the newspapers which helped Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating of BB minus from Fitch and Standard and Poor’s. Passionate about the public’s participation in affairs of the Nigerian nation, she partnered with the GALL UP organization to introduce an NOI poll, an opinion poll conducted by her N.G.O NOI consulting targeting Nigerians. The NOI gall up poll strives to strengthen democracy and promote accountability. In 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was behind a World Bank plan to create so-called diaspora bonds to raise money from the estimated 23 million Africans living abroad, who hold more than $30 billion in savings. The money would be used to help African countries fund essential services and fight poverty.


As a woman who understands the limitations suffered by women in developing countries, She co-founded the Makeda Fund, a US$50 million private equity fund designed to invest in women-owned and women-influenced small and medium enterprises in Africa. In recognition to her contribution to the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is the recipient of several national and international awards. Her awards include Time Europe Hero 2004, This Day Nigeria Minister of the Year 2004, Euromoney Magazine Global Finance Minister of the year 2005, Financial Times/The Banker African, Finance Minister 2005, Nigerian of the Year 2006, among several others. She is a member or chair of numerous boards and advisory groups, including DATA, the World Resources Institute, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Nelson Mandela Institution, Friends of the Global Fund Africa, and the African Institute of Science and Technology. She has served as adviser to several international investment groups working in emerging markets and lectured on Africa and development all over the world.


Apart from the African Union which endorsed Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, she has enjoyed the support of Lant Pritchett, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who also worked at the World Bank for 17 years. Lant Pritchett has spoken out about the US World Bank presidency nomination, Jim Yong Kim. Pritchett describes the nomination as “a terrible idea” and “an embarrassment” and tipped Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as more suited to assumed the head of World Bank. In his own words, “There is no way you can say with a straight face that this man is more qualified to head the World Bank than Ngozi. At best, Kim has worked with ministers of health, but they are in one of many, many government agencies. A minister of finance has to make hard choices across sectors. Having the experience of a minister of finance is the optimal experience for being president of the World Bank”. He also said that the nomination of Kim was “like picking the short stop for the New York Yankees out of the scrub leagues”, and went on to describe his work as “charity work”. He concludes that “development is about countries becoming prosperous, democratic and capable, like being able to deliver the mail, having police forces that work and kids who get educated. Charity work is helping people cope with the fact that they live in places where they don’t have those things.”


I am understandably excited about the emergence of Dr. Iweala as a contender for the World Bank job, even though it might mean a loss for Nigeria, a nation caught in the quicksands of corruption and a lot of financial and social ills. I think that it is a big leap for women and as the only female contender in the race for the top seat at the Bretton Woods institution, it will be a victory for women should she emerge the winner of the hotly contested seat. However, I am not blind to the hurdles before her. Since 1944, the position of the World Bank president has been exclusive to Americans and it will amount to political suicide for U.S president, Barrack Obama to lose the World Bank to a non American. IMF, like the World Bank has always been exclusive to Europe. Lagarde’s emergence as IMF chief in spite of coming against equally qualified candidates from non European countries is testimony to the unrelenting stance by the West to hold on to these financial institutions created by them in the aftermath of the world war and should America lose it for the first time, all blame will go to Obama and we know what that means to his re-election ambition. As the top funder of the World Bank, U.S will definitely enjoy an upper hand over the less influential members of the World Bank and if precedence is anything to go by, I see Jim Yong Kim winning the title to president of the World Bank, but then again, it won’t hurt to keep hope alive. I wish Dr. Iweala all the best!!!

Written on March 28 2012 on