Is IMF/World Bank work experience good recommendation for leadership in Africa?

Jan 20, 2012

Chido Makunike

One of the most socially prestigious kinds of work experiences a person can have on his or her CV in Africa is a senior position at the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or similar institution. Almost no one knows what being ‘director’ or ‘senior vice president’ at these organizations involves, but the social cachet that goes with it for an African is tremendous. Inevitably, very often the next mountain these international bureaucrats believe their experience qualifies them for is to lead their country. But is this kind of career background particularly good recommendation and experience for problem-solving in Africa?

The public may have no clue what these international bureaucrats actually do, but the perks and prestige that go along with their jobs are very visible and impressive. They are driven around in big four by four vehicles. They clearly enjoy very good salaries, especially in the local terms of their national compatriots. They work from very impressive-sounding locales in the Western world and elsewhere. They frequently travel all over the world on obscure but impressive-sounding missions. Their technocratic jargon sounds very knowledgeable, very ‘experty.’

In rich countries a senior position in one of these various ‘multilateral institutions’ is just one possibly reasonably well-paying job out of many. In a poor country, the few locals who reach high positions in these global bureaucracies are automatically prominent local stars; high flyers. Whatever it is they actually do, and whether or not they are good at it, these are people who have ‘made it’ in terms very few of their fellow citizens can dream of. These positions are considered the pinnacle of success.

In terms of pay, perks or exposure, there are few similar jobs available to these international bureaucrats after their stints with their organizations end. For most, almost anything else they can think of doing, especially ‘back home,’ is in many ways a step down. Certainly almost no local jobs can offer the perks and ‘prestige’ of having been a senior ‘director’ or ‘senior vice president’ at these international organizations.

What to do next then? It seems that a significant number of these international office holders think of leading their country to ‘development’ and glory. It occurs to the person involved that if they could hold such a prestigious international position for five or ten years, that gives them the perfect experience to go and ‘save’ their country from its current rulers.

And so we have seen many ex-UN, ex-IMF and World Bank, etc men and women offer themselves up for the leadership of their country. Their rationale is almost always in the vein of, ‘I will use my impressive international experience and network to turn this country around in very short order.’

One example is president Ellen Sirleaf of Liberia, former senior bureaucrat at the IMF. Ex World Bank/IMF man Allasane Ouattara, current president of Ivory Coast is another. Ex- UN Food and Agricultural Organization director, Jacques Diouf, briefly floated the idea of running for president of his country, Senegal, in the election scheduled for February 2012. A compatriot of his who served in another UN body at senior level has also thrown his hat into the presidential ring. The candidature of the first fizzled out before it started; the one of the second is not taken widely seriously by most observers. There are countless other examples all over Africa of such international bureaucrats who are convinced that their work experience gives them unique insights on and qualifications for governance.

One downside of having been away from home for many years occupying these positions is that you are considered out of touch with local issues and sensibilities. Perhaps more importantly, the average voter is usually out of touch with you, no matter how ‘public’ and high flying you may have been in your international bureaucratic circles.

Often in one’s favor is the fact that experience in these inevitably Western-funded, controlled and dominated institutions is that in the West (important source of loans, ‘donor funds’ and investment), these ‘graduates’ of Western institutions are considered safe and reliable as possible leaders of their countries. They are sure to be non-radical, ‘responsible’ leaders who will not rock the boat against Western interests. By dint of their education and employment experience, they can pretty reliably be counted on to prescribe to whatever is the prevailing Western orthodoxy in their thinking about how to manage, ‘reform’ and run their countries.    

This brings us to one Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigerian finance minister. She is considered by many to be a superstar, a whiz kid in Nigerian technocratic terms. Once a high profile finance minister before, she left that job in controversial circumstances, but landed well on her feet at senior bureaucrat level at the World Bank. This obviously neutralized any loss of face over having to give up her ministerial job, and only added to the prestige value of her CV.

When new Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan took office in 2011, luring Okonjo-Iweala back to head the finance minister was considered one of his earliest successes. The conditions of her appointment were a public talking point as is rarely the case for civil servants, such was her superstar status. She was going to be given wide latitude to use her IMF/World Bank magic to sort fix Nigeria, and quickly! The move was lauded as a sign of Jonathan’s commitment to fiscal rectitude and economic reform, at least according to the reigning IMF/World Bank paradigm. A single local appointment that would normally not be of much interest outside Nigeria received lots of approving attention in many Western media and policy circles. Some say she is a super minister akin to a prime minister, with the power to overlook the work of her Cabinet colleagues   

A few months later, at the end of 2011, the new IMF managing director, Christine Lagarde, visited Nigeria and made some nice, pleased-sounding noises about the economic direction Nigeria seemed set on under its new government. Few ordinary Africans think in warm terms about the IMF that is mainly known through the infamous ‘structural adjustments’ they have often prescribed in exchange for loans. But for African governments, high-level approval from these institutions is sweet music to their ears. Clearly Jonathan and Okonjo-Iweala had started off their terms with a bang.

Then came the oil price subsidy removal in January 2012. ‘Remove subsidies’ is a classic, standard IMF economic prescription, as people in many African countries have become painfully aware over the years. In fiscal and classic economic terms, the reasons given for the removal of the subsidy may have been sound. But Nigerians revolted in outrage at what many have called one of the few benefits they see from their country’s vast oil wealth.

Goodluck’s considerable goodwill amongst Nigerians evaporated overnight; the vast political capital with which he started already spent and overdrawn. It remains to be seen how the impasse between the government and the citizens will play out, but some retreat by the government seems inevitable, given the astonishing depth of feeling about the issue by Nigerians, and how various unions brought the country to a halt in protest for more than a week.

The hand of IMF/World Bank-pedigreed whiz kid Okonjo-Iweala is obvious in the subsidy removal. Here we have an example of the kind of economic measure that shows Okonjo-Iweala in very good light in IMF/World Bank paradigm terms, but that has been stunningly spurned by the Nigerians whom Okonjo-Iweala was going to ‘save.’

What to make of all this?

The oil subsidy is indeed costly to Nigeria and unsustainable in the long term. The basic idea of removing it and applying the US$8 billion spent annually on it towards ‘development’ may be sound, putting aside for now the fact that many Nigerians don’t believe this is what would actually happen. To this extent the IMF/World Bank orthodoxy Okonjo-Iweala  represents may actually also coincide with Nigeria’s long-term best interests.

But as has been seen in so many other countries, even when these structural adjustment-type measures are ultimately best for an economy in the long term, they cannot be applied in a vacuum; separate from the social and political context of a country. The idea that looks brilliant in an IMF boardroom cannot be applied without studying and adjusting for the local context. This is where local sensibility and political smarts are as important as the strictly economic ideas. IMF-type ideas and ‘skills’ that are not accompanied by the rest of the political package required to apply them successfully are useless.  

Even if the idea of removing the oil subsidy is best for Nigeria’s economy in the long term, how it was done in this case has clearly been disastrous. The government did not do any selling of the idea, which is a radical departure from what Nigerians have come to think of as an entitlement. The prices of fuel and other petroleum products rose two to three fold. The prices of everything else went up as well, for everybody. The impact of the move was huge, widespread and immediate, as was the explosive public reaction, which the government clearly did not anticipate, calling into question why it didn’t.

Okonjo-Iweala’s IMF/World bank CV does not seem to include the skills/experience to have considered these important factors in the application of the subsidy removal. As many Nigerians who see the eventual need to phase out the subsidy have asked, could it not have been gradually phased out instead of being applied suddenly and all at once?

The profligacy of the governing elite with the country’s oil wealth while most Nigerians wallow in poverty is another great source of public resentment. Few believe the ‘savings’ from removing the fuel price subsidy will benefit the nation because of the deep distrust the citizens have of the governing class. Would it not have been politically smart for Jonathan and Okonjo-Iweala to first have taken time to show a firm stance against widespread corruption and the flaunting of non-earned wealth by the governing elite, before then trying to sell the idea of the subsidy to suspicious Nigerians?

By its very poor political application, even a good economic idea can be rejected.  Jonathan is taking the heat for this very big political miscalculation, and of course the buck stops with him as president. But unless it emerges he rejected Okonjo-Iweala’s advice to do things differently, less painfully for Nigerians, a lot of the mud being thrown at the president will hit her as well, as the finance minister and presumed author/recommender of this politically disastrously implemented ‘reform.’ 

International institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and others are established, stable bureaucracies. It makes relatively little difference to their functioning who is the director of this or the vice president of that. The people who revolve in and out of these positions are simply highly paid-functionaries in organizations where they don’t have much of a role to fundamentally change anything in how the organizations function.

Running a finance or other critical ministry, or the government itself, in a volatile developing country is a completely different ball game, arguably requiring a very different mix of skill sets from being a highly paid functionary in a long-established, ’safe’ international bureaucracy. In a country like Nigeria you must deal with far more complex political considerations in applying your economic ideas than is the case when you are a top official at the IMF, World Bank or some such. As can be seen in Nigeria today in regards to the unpopular move to end the oil subsidy, the costs of a miscalculation are far more severe than if you make an error of judgment at your top UN or other such job.  

International bureaucrats have as much right to aspire to presidential or ministerial positions as any of their fellow citizens. But the skills required of being a senior functionary in various ‘multilateral institutions’ can be vastly different from the challenges of governing a country. Perhaps one lesson from the Nigerian experience and many others is that Africa should be a little less dazzled by ‘high ranking international bureaucrat’ in an aspiring politician’s CV. It does not appear to necessarily be the strong governance selling point and automatic advantage it is made out to be.



Anonymous said...

Dr. Iweala came back to Nigeria with the sole aim of developing the country's economy. Her actions are pointing towards that. It is high time Nigerians need to start making the hard choices.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to professionals coming back to contribute their own quota, Dr. Iweala stands out. She is a jewel.

Post a Comment