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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former managing director of the World Bank and the coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance in Nigeria, made her case for her bid to be the next president of the World Bank at a CGD-Washington Post Live event on Monday, showing the persuasive powers and qualifications she would use to lead the world’s top development institution.
Okonjo-Iweala arrived at the event directly from a three-and-a-half hour interview with the World Bank board, the first of three sessions that the board is holding this week with three nominated candidates.
“I am a little tired,” she told assembled development experts and a global audience watching a live Webcast. “I’ll try to do my best.” If the 57-year-old economist was tired, it hardly showed, as she spoke with energy and passion about how she would lead the bank.
“My vision for the World Bank is very much informed by who I am and what I have gone through in my life,” she began, recalling what it was like to be raised by her grandmother in a Nigerian village while her parents were studying in Germany.
“I know what it meant to go to the stream to fetch water…What it means when people are poor and they cannot get enough to eat. I lived through the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, where eating one meal a day was a luxury. I saw people dying around me [from malnutrition]… I know what it means not to have a place to sleep because you are running from the enemy.”
Now a Harvard-educated economist with a Ph.D. from MIT, Okonjo-Iweala briefly recounted her long career at the World Bank, which included work on the Middle East (where she was the first senior World Bank official who was not a man), in South Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, noting that she has first-hand experience with a wide range of countries, low-income, middle-income and emerging markets.
She said that her priority at the World Bank would be activities that help countries to create jobs. “Wherever you look, the issue is about jobs,” she said, listing high unemployment numbers in countries as economically diverse as Spain, the U.S., India and Nigeria. “I have yet to meet a single poor person who did not want the dignity of the job.” (See the Washington Post report by Elizabeth Flock.)
Asked by Washington Post staff writer Howard Schneider, who moderated the Q&A session, what happened at her meeting with the World Bank board, she said that she had shared a list of eleven frustrations she had collected during her years in the bank and as an official on the opposite side of the negotiating table.
"You know the Bank has been around 60 years, there's quite a bit of inertia," she said. "There are things that really frustrate me. You have to have the courage to say: look, certain things that we've always made this way, they have to go." (See AFP: Nigeria Contender Pledges World Bank Shake-Up.)
The highpoint for me came during the Q&A session, when Okonjo-Iweala was asked how she would secure continued U.S. support for the World Bank if she were selected over the U.S. nominee, Jim Yong Kim, a physician, anthropologist and global health advocate who is currently the president of Dartmouth College.
“How would a non-American persuade Congress?” Okonjo-Iweala asked, summarizing the question. “Many people keep worrying about this,” that Congress will cut support for the World Bank if it has a non-American president selected on merit.
Her reply: The United States signed on to an open, merit-based process when it endorsed a 2008 G-20 statement on leadership selection at the international financial institutions. And such an approach is in-line with American values.
“These are the values Americans cherish. They cherish competition. They cherish merit. They cherish the best. And I don’t know why they would not cherish this in an institution of global significance sitting in their capital,” she said.
“America has been a leader in so many places and so many things. The world is asking the U.S. to lead on this. Because if the United States does not lead by staying true to its values of transparency, openness and merit, others will not lead.”
If she is selected, Okonjo-Iweala said, she would enlist non-U.S. World Bank shareholders to join with her in persuading Congress to continue U.S. support for the World Bank Group. “I would make it my job to use my persuasive powers,” she said.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.