Would an African Word Bank president make any difference to Africa?

Apr 4, 2012

World Bank president Robert Zoelick is stepping down in June, and there is a frenzy of speculation about whether he will be succeeded by the institution’s first non-American. Former World Bank vice president and current Nigerian finance minister Nogozi Okonjo-Iweala is being touted as ‘Africa’s candidate.’ Is there any reason for Africans to be excited about the talk of her candidature?

Okonjo-Iweala, only a few months into her job as finance minister under the government of newly elected Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, first responded coyly to the speculation that she might be interested in succeeding Zoelick. It was the politician’s classic old “I’m not thinking about it or running for it, but I’m honored to be mentioned. I have no comment but I’m not ruling anything in or out.”

In other words, she wanted the job.

But this is a person who was reportedly ‘lured’ from the World Bank to take up her finance ministry position in Nigeria, her second stint in the position. It was billed as a tremendous sacrifice for Okonjo-Iweala to have left her World Bank position to serve in Jonathan’s government.

Any way you look at it, it is awkward for Okonjo-Iweala to now be a candidate for the top job at the employer she left just a few months ago. What has become of her sense of ‘sacrifice’ and commitment to ‘national service?’

You can’t blame observers who are cynical about Okonjo-Iweala’s apparent career indecision. She seems torn between the ‘prestige’ of employment at the World Bank and the ‘sacrifice’ of being a cabinet minister in her home country.

Said Okonjo-Iweala, “Several African leaders called my president and asked for my name to be put forward because they felt they have someone really qualified to do this job,” she said. One can’t helped be touched by her modesty.

That aside, what would be in it for Africans if Okonjo-Iweala became World Bank president? Would such a development be any great move forward for Africans, or simply be a possibly great career move for one African?

Between the two Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank has a much more benign, less controversial reputation in Africa and the developing world in general than the IMF. Still, both institutions are structured in the image of the Western world, and are clearly dominated by it. That would not change even if the first non-American becomes director of the World Bank.

In the talk of Okonjo-Iweala (or Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo) possibly becoming next World Bank director, there is no serious suggestion that anything would fundamentally be different about the way the institution runs. Whatever reforms may be required, the Western nations that for now contribute the bulk of the bank’s operating and lending funds will continue to have a disproportionate voice, regardless of who heads the institution. Arguably, a non-American would have even less influence to do any reforming than the first ‘third world’ director.

Okonjo-Iweala has as much right to aspire to be World Bank president as any one else, but there would be nothing particularly in it for the ordinary African.

We saw this with the United Nation’s first African secretary general, Ghana’s Kofi Annan. It was of course necessary and ‘good’ for an African to finally be the public face of the UN, but there was little significance for Africans or the developing world beyond the window-dressing level. For example, the Security Council reform that is sometimes talked about as necessary to better reflect the make-up of the world (including the possibility of a permanent seat for Africa) did not get any boost as a result of an African being the UN secretary general.

If anything, in the post-Annan era, the UN has arguably become even more nakedly a tool of Western powers to achieve their aims in developing countries than before. The best example of this is how they hijacked a UN Security Council resolution to achieve regime change in Libya. This obviously cannot be blamed on Annan, but the point is that his tenure did not in any way change the power imbalances of the UN system. Annan was simply an African functionary of the same old Western-dominated system of power that has characterized the UN since its formation.

In fairness to Annan, he would not have even been nominated, let alone got the job, if it had even been suspected by the powers that dominate these ‘multilateral institutions’ that he would be in any way ‘radical’ or seek to rock the boat. Ditto for Okonjo-Iweala candidacy, if it gets off the ground at all. It would almost necessarily be on the understanding that she would be a ‘good girl’ who maintained the status quo of how the World Bank is structured and does its job.

Nor is there any suggestion that Okonjo-Iweala would be inclined to substantially change anything at the World Bank anyway. So if she would be just like any other bureaucrat, American or otherwise, as president of the World Bank, why should an ordinary African be particularly excited about her candidature?

The relative powerlessness to change the basic setup of the institution is not in itself an argument against an African being UN secretary general (or World Bank president). But it is a reminder that the occupation of high-profile jobs in these ‘multilateral’ (but Western-dominated) institutions is not as big a deal for people in the developing world as is sometimes suggested.

It would simply be another ‘prestigious’ line on Okonjo-Iweala’s CV if she were to be World Bank president, but it would have approximately zero effect on ‘development’ in Africa. The increasing influence of developing counties in world affairs is and will continue to be as a result of on the ground economic changes, not window dressing appointments at the top levels of institutions like the World Bank. It is important to keep things in perspective.

In any case, it already seems a done deal that another American will succeed Zoelick at the World Bank anyway.

Until another top level ‘international’ job tempts Okonjo-Iweala to consider leaving her ‘national service’ job to Nigeria, it looks like she will be remaining put in Abuja, though possibly at the cost of many Nigerians questioning the depth of her commitment to being a civil servant.

The Zimbabwe Review


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