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WORLD BANK PRESIDENT: WHY US SHOULD SUPPORT OKONJO-IWEALA

By NBF News
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When former US President, Mr. Bill Clinton came for a State visit to Nigeria in 2001, he made a profound prophetic statement: 'As we enter the third millennium, the world looks up to Africa for leadership, but Africa looks up to Nigeria for leadership'. Spoken against the backdrop of an emerging new world order at the turn of the millennium, the import of that statement could not be most appropriate and relevant than now when the World Bank (WB) is about to effect a leadership change.

Like most of us who have followed the workings of the WB, we believe the prophesy of Mr. Clinton about Africa should find fulfillment at this time because, for the first time, Africa has endorsed one of its own, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to contest for the position of World Bank President.

Established in 1945 as post-World War 11 direct response to re-construct the badly devastated Europe, the World Bank Group has since emerged as a development institution with clear aims to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable growth in its client countries. For six decades and more, the Bank has advocated for poor people in economically poor countries by providing loans, policy advice, and technical assistance. It has worked relentlessly to get economic and financial policies right, promoting better education and health initiatives, while acting as facilitator on global development issues.

Indeed, throughout its history, the Bank has adjusted to the changing external environment, from post-World War 11 reconstruction, to the challenges of global development, and to the information and communication revolution that necessitated the Bank's launch of 'Open, Data, Open knowledge, Open Solutions' initiative in 2010 to make its rich resource materials available to the public. Standing on the premise of collaborations, and leveraging on its passionate and professional staff, the Bank remains a learning organization and a dynamic institution. Over the years, the Bank has learned lessons on development and poverty. It has realized what works and what does not.

Addressing the World Bank Annual Meeting in Prague in September 2000, Mr. James D. Wolfensohn, former WB President observed 'We have learned that poverty is more than inadequate income or even low human development; it is also about lack of voice, lack of representation. We have learned that development cannot be imposed from above; it must be home-grown and home-owned. Ours must be a partnership to build a new internationalism to match a globalized economy'.

The pain of Mr. Wolfensohn then, is that the fight against poverty has been fought from the outside. His hope is that through an act of inclusiveness the Bank will someday allow someone from the developing countries, where poverty seems to dwell, to take leadership at the Bank to fight poverty and under-development in those places.

The need for inclusiveness was reiterated on September 29, 2010 by the current WB President, Robert B. Zoellick, while speaking at the Georgetown University, US on the topic: 'Democratizing Development Economics'. He argues that emerging economies have become key variables in the global growth equation, that the flow of knowledge is no longer North to South, West to East, rich to poor; and more importantly, that with the end of the outdated concept of a Third World, the first World must open itself to competition in ideas and experience. 'A new multi-polar world requires multi-polar knowledge', he affirms.

The African Union Commission corroborates Zoellick's view, when it endorsed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Africa's candidate for the WB President. In a statement, the Commission says: 'The challenge of addressing development in today's complex world requires multi-sectoral expertise. It requires a demonstrated ability to draw on knowledge, expertise and experience in a wide range of areas, and to manage the interplay of these'. The Commission further admits that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala possesses undisputed credentials in terms of her technical and managerial experience, as well as strong records of accomplishment as a development professional, both inside and outside the WB.

There is no denying the fact that the WB has done such much to raise awareness about the poverty as well as worked with developing countries governments to tackle the canker of poverty. Despite its record of development accomplishments, the Bank remains fixated in its one-track supply of top leadership since its founding.

With a membership of about 185 countries from around the world, the Bank has never had a President who is not a citizen of the United States, and it has never had a female President, either.

Yet the Bank works to promote institutional transparency, participation, gender-inclusiveness and accountability. Should it be said that these values make global sense because only US-born Presidents of WB promote them? Should it not hold true also if another person from any of the developing countries have a chance of leading such an important institution that is supposed to work for their development interest? I believe that in a globalized world with unprecedented knowledge diffusion, the leadership of the WB should not reside in the United States alone. This is not because the US, as the major shareholder in the Bank, does not have the right to maintain this status quo, or is it because American-born WB Presidents so far have not performed well. Rather, this is an opportunity, like never before, to animate the ideals of equity and inclusiveness at the Bank.

It is important to note that the World Bank has a huge perception challenge in Africa as in many developing countries. Instructively, perception is stronger than reality. While it has done such for Africa and developing countries to deal with the challenge of poverty, the perception is that the Bank and its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on account of their policies, are responsible for poverty and under-development in Africa and the rest of developing world. This perception is reinforced by the fact that no one from outside US and Europe has ever led any of the two institutions. Whether true or otherwise, this is a strong perception that sometimes stimulates anti-WB/IMF sentiments among the public. Without sounding pedestal, I think the Presidency of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will help ease this perception, and boost the Bank's good will in Africa and beyond.

As the Board of WB arrive Washington DC for the Annual Spring Meeting this April, we would like to call on President Barak Obama to support Africa's candidate for the Bank's President in the person of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. We believe that as President Obama has become an historic legend, being the first Black American to be elected US President; President Obama has a singular opportunity to set the WB on new historic platform by endorsing and ensuring that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, becomes the first female President of the WB. The idea of electing her for this job should be seen beyond the purview of gender mainstreaming. It should be supported within the context of history and America's avowed commitment to Africa's development. Again, the support is not just a matter of convenience or tokenism, but one borne out of the need for pragmatic paradigm shift.

Perhaps, someone argues that asking for America's support at this time is like digging an oil well in your backyard and asking a stranger to manage the company. On the contrary, Okonjo Iweala is not a stranger to the Bank; in fact, she has virtually spent her professional career at the Bank and therefore; understands the vision, the power politics, the policies, the intrigues, and the nuances that make the WB a truly knowledge-based development Bank. She will not only protect the business interest of the major shareholders, but also will be a credible link between them and the emerging economies represented by the BRICS- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

This time around, the Board should use 'Washington Consensus' to do something differently. From all indications, the tide is changing in favour of emerging economies. Let us consolidate on what happened recently when, for the first time in 66 years, the Chief Economist of WB, Justin Yifu Lin, came from a developing country.

The Nigerian government supports her candidature. African Union has also endorsed her. We ask America and the rest of Europe to prove their support for Africa's development by electing Okonjo Iweala as the next WB President.

Already, former President Clinton had spoken of a time like this. Mr. Wolfensohn and Mr. Zoellick have hoped for this time. Let us make it good. Indeed, the appointment of Okonjo Iweala as new WB President represents a pragmatic paradigm shift to do development differently and to deliver on the promise of a global economy that works for all.

Ibekwe writes from Abuja.