Okonjo-Iweala's candidacy and how Bingu wa Mutharika’s World Bank experience didn’t seem to be of much help to Malawi

Apr 7, 2012

The death of Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika at 78 of a heart attack seems to have been met with very little public sorrow. Yet he came into office in 2004 on a wave of popular support, tremendous goodwill and with his country folks’ very high expectations of what he would achieve for Malawi. One key reason for those high hopes was that he was formerly ‘a World Bank economist.’ What are we to make of the fact that such an impressively pedigreed ‘technocrat’ has left ‘the warm heart of Africa’ with such cold feelings towards him?

Economic and political credentials don’t come any more prestigious than ‘I was an economist at the World Bank.’ Such job experience in one’s career history is for many people vaguely a mark of having ‘the answers’ to almost anything and everything. Once such a person does his or her country the ‘favor’ of running for political office, we know that the coming of ‘development’ and the end of all economic problems can’t be far behind. All we have to do is to put our ‘X’ next to his or her name in the voting booth, and the Bretton Woods technocrat will put his or her bag of magical economic solutions to what ails the country to work.

Except things haven’t gone according to that script in Malawi. Among the problems plaguing that country now, and the cause of so much negativity by Malawians to Mutharika: inflation of 11% for February 2012; a resultantly rapidly depreciating currency, which has in turn caused shortages of many imported goods including fuel.

Long queues for what fuel is available have become the norm, and power cuts have become common, both dramatically increasing national stress and discontentment levels. Mutharika’s haughty, arrogant response to criticism did not help to endear him to a population that had so welcomed his rule in the beginning.

According to a Reuters report, “Few of Malawi's 13 million people mourned Mutharika, whom they regarded as an autocrat personally responsible for an economic crisis that stemmed ultimately from a diplomatic spat with former colonial power Britain a year ago.”

That report quoted a Malawian businessman saying of the man who dubbed himself "Economist in chief" as saying, “"I am yet to see anyone shedding a tear for Bingu. We all wished him dead, sorry to say that."

So, what happened to all that vaunted World Bank job experience which was going to allow Mutharika to perform an economic miracle in his country?

Obviously, Mutharika’s having worked for the World Bank did not change the economic fundamentals of his country: reliance on donors for what was said to be as much as 40% of its budget until Britain and other countries withdraw significant parts of their support, and over-reliance on one commodity, tobacco, for export earnings.

The one area in which Mutharika is widely credited with serving his country well (but largely overlooked in the obituaries) was in instituting a farming inputs subsidy scheme. This made once chronically famine-hit Malawi have surpluses of the country’s staple food, maize, several years in a row. Ironically for a ‘World Bank economist,’ Mutharika went against Bretton Woods orthodoxy that subsides are bad to achieve this success.

As Malawi prepares to bury its much maligned, once-World Bank serving ‘economist in chief,’ there is a lot of noise about positioning Nigerian finance minister and also former World Bank employee, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as next president of that bank. Her revolving door stints at the World Bank and the Nigerian cabinet may suggest a person who can’t quite make up her mind which master she wants to serve, but clearly there are many ways in which being World Bank president could be considered a smart move for her personally.

But her candidature is being billed as much more than that. According to the propaganda, no less than Africa’s success will depend on her getting the job, as patently absurd as that claim sounds.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala herself casts her candidature as a somewhat reluctant capitulation to the desperate pleas of African leaders to her boss, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, for her to stand in contention for the position, sort of on behalf of the continent.

She is quoted as saying, “Their feeling (African countries), as it has been described to me, is that the World Bank succeeds or fails depending on what happens in Africa, because it is the continent that has the most complex development challenges and, now, the biggest opportunities, given how things have turned around.

They were looking for someone eminently qualified to lead in Africa and to lead globally. So, and again this is what I am told, they started calling my president with this thesis. The leader of the African Union. Jacob Zuma of South Africa. The president of Côte d’Ivoire. The leader of the World Bank in the Francophone countries. Goodluck Jonathan was bombarded with calls and letters. I think he decided, if I am getting pressure from all these leaders, I will allow her to go.”

So, according to her, the whole continent of Africa is clamoring for her to be the next World Bank president. She and her president are humbly, modestly responding to that claimed African groundswell of pleas for her to be ‘Africa’s’ World Bank president.

‘I am running for office because my people have said they desperately need my special skills’ is as old as politics. But there is no doubt many Africans would, if for no other reason, like and be ‘proud’ of at least the symbolism of one of their own occupying a high-profile ‘multilateral’ job that has up to now been the preserve of white Americans. But as Kofi Annan’s stint as UN secretary general showed, it is naïve, perhaps even silly, to think that such window dressing would on its own result in any fundamental change in Africa’s position in the world.That will happen as a result of hard thinking and work in African countries, not so much by Africans occupying prestigious positions in what are essentially western institutions. There is certainly nothing wrong with individuals who achieve the latter, but it is absurd to pretend that this represents any significant step forward for African problem-solving.

In terms of achieving concrete results which can be 'felt' by significant numbers of Africans, Okonjo-Iweala arguably has far better prospects of doing that as finance minister of Nigeria than as the World Bank's top bureaucrat. There is no suggestion here that she has any obligation to put serving Nigerians or Africans ahead of her self-defined career goals. It is actually Okonjo-Iweala who as part of her campaign strategy is insinuating that her being World Bank president would not merely be good for her personally, but somehow how Africa and the developing world in general. If being 'good for Africa' is important to her, she probably has far much influence to directly, positively affect lives as Nigeria's minister of finance than by being top dog in an organization controlled by the US and various other foreign governments.      

What the hapless Mutharika’s record as Malawi’s president tells us is that experience as a bureaucrat of an institution such as the World Bank may not be here nor there in the kind of leader a person becomes. Being a ‘World Bank economist’ and solving the problems of a country like Malawi (Nigeria, Zimbabwe, etc) may have very little to do with each other.

At the time of his death, Mutharika was involved in a bitter, undiplomatic row with ‘experts’ from the IMF, the World Bank's sister institution, over their proposal that the Malawi Kwacha be officially devalued, a standard sort of Bretton Woods recommendation in the conditions the country finds itself under. But World Bank ‘graduate’ Mutharika feared the political consequences of such a move, finding that the imperatives of running a country look rather different from the driver’s seat than they do from the vantage point of a World Bank office.

Mutharika understandably resented his country’s deep donor-dependence, but found that changing that reality, as well as the entrenched national mindset that underpins it, is very far from easy. Some of his fellow nationals have responded to the donors’ effective strangling of their economy, not with ‘let’s think and work harder to be independent,’ but rather with, ‘Mutharika how dare you so anger our donors that they felt moved to cut off our lifeline.’ There was probably nothing in his ‘World Bank economist’ work experience to help him deal with such a mindset impediment to development.

Okonjo-Iweala, asked by the New York Times what her agenda would be if she won the World Bank president position, partly replied, “I would like it (the bank) to be much faster to get aid on the ground, and faster giving policy advice and help to ministers looking for it.”

So then, no change in thinking from the Western thinking of Africa as primarily a problem whose solutions can mostly be thought of in terms of external ‘aid’ of one kind or another. But there is a big difference: the African World Bank president would strive to get the aid to Africa faster!

 Excuse me for being thoroughly underwhelmed, but 'Africa's candidate' does not seem to have particularly ambitious goal for her tenure if she wins the position. Part of Okonjo-Iweala's uninspiring caution may simply be reality: she would neither get nor keep the job if the western countries that control the World Bank perceived her as a real reformer/'troublemaker.'

When the US and the rest of the western countries that call the shots at the IMF and the World Bank decide that it is time to pacify the rest of the 'emerging world' by conceding the titular headships of these organizations to the latter, it will be to 'safe' (for the West) people very much in the mold of Okonjo-Iweala. The West may be grudgingly, carefully ready for African and other non-Western faces as the figureheads of organizations like the UN and perhaps even the World Bank soon, but they are certainly not ready for Africans/non-Westerners who would challenge the basic set-up of these institutions.

What all this suggests is that being a ‘World Bank economist’ may tell us little or nothing about how well a bureaucrat with such a pedigree is going to serve his or her country, let alone the whole continent of Africa.

Okonjo-Iweala is no doubt well ‘qualified’ for the World Bank presidency, even though she is said to be an underdog to the (traditional) American nominee. Mutharika was also a ‘qualified’ World Bank economist. Ask the Malawians how much positive difference that made to them.

May Mutharika’s soul rest in peace. Good luck to Okonjo-Iweala in her bid to be the next World Bank president. But don’t cast that personal career move as being ‘for Africa.’

The Zimbabwe Review


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