The Nigerian contender for the position of president of the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 57, has called on the United States to take the lead in breaking the long-standing tradition of an American always heading the World Bank.
Harvard-trained economist and managing director of the World Bank, now Nigeria's finance minister, is one of the three nominees for the post of World Bank president. She said on Monday, after a three-and-a-half-hour interview conducted by the World Bank board, that the decision on who leads the World Bank should be based on merit and not on whether the person is an American or a nominee of the American government. AFP reports she said that the Americans and Europeans who dominate World Bank affairs "have the responsibility not to continue a system that is 60 years out of date."
Reuters reports that during the interview, Okonjo-Iweala said she was not asking for support of any country but that she only asked for the selection process to be based on merit. Okonjo-Iweala criticized the tradition based on an alleged informal agreement between the U.S. and Europe in which an American heads the World Bank and a European heads the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The challenge to the tradition of an American heading the World Bank has been growing since new rising economic world powers such as China, India and Brazil have called for an end to it.
Okonjo-Iweala, who left the post of managing director at the World Bank last year to accept the position of Finance Minister in Nigeria, is running against two other candidates: former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo and the U.S. nominee, Korean-American Jim Yong Kim. The World Bank is seeking a replacement for outgoing president Robert Zoellick by April 20.
Ocampo and Kim will be interviewed on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Reuters reports this is the first time Washington's nominee to the post of president of the World Bank is being challenged.
According to The Washington Post, Okonjo-Iweala, speaking at an event hosted by the Center for Global Development and Washington Post Live, said it is time for the rest of the world to challenge the United State's domination of the World Bank. She said: "You cannot look at global governance in the same old way and should recognize the changing constellation of powers. I do not believe that if we ignore this reality we can really have global governance that works because these countries will not feel valued in the global system."
She said that her vision for the World Bank is influenced by her background. She grew up in a village in southeast Nigeria and later had international exposure as a Harvard trained economist. The Washington Post reports she spoke about her Nigerian village background and her experience of poverty while living with her grandmother as a child: “I know what it means to go to the stream to fetch water...what it means when people are poor and don’t have enough to eat. It’s not good enough to say you know about poverty. You have to live it” to understand what it is.
Okonjo-Iweala argued that the focus of the World Bank should be on helping developing economies build infrastructure which will power economic growth and increase investment in education, health and gender issues. She criticized the slow decision-making process at the World Bank, saying: "We need a Rolodex of experts that we can call on very fast. The bank needs to be fast in delivering knowledge. Middle-income countries are no longer willing to wait when they need a question answered."
She said her experience as finance minister and managing director of the World Bank gives her a unique blend of insight into what will make the World Bank serve developing economies better. The Washington Post reports she also emphasized the need for the bank to focus more on job creation, especially for the youth. She said that unemployment is a problem that affects both high and low-income countries: “Wherever you look, the issue is about jobs. I have yet to meet a single poor person who did not want the dignity of the job."
AFP reports she said the World Bank needs a shake-up to end the inertia built up over six decades and she pledged a sweeping reassessment of the way the bank does business. According to Okonjo-Iweala, during the years of her service at the World Bank she compiled a list of 11 major issues she said she found most frustrating about the way the institution works and which she shared with the bank's board during her interview on Monday.
Top on the list of her "frustrations" was the lack of data to take decisions on poverty reduction in low-income countries. She said: "There's a big gap there, we've not done enough. We haven't come with instruments to deal with regional integration. Why? Is that beyond what we can think of?"
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. The president has to be a leader, to have the vision, to have the courage. It takes a lot of courage...You know the Bank has been around 60 years, there's quite a bit of inertia."
The Washington Post reports that a group of 39 former World Bank officials, in a letter sent to bank members last week, said they support the Nigerian economist’s candidacy because she has “deep experience in international and national issues of economic management.”