Should an African lead the World Bank?

I don’t mean to pose the question in a rhetorical, politically correct manner. It’s not obvious that the answer should be yes.

Sure, the World Bank’s mission is to reduce poverty, and its biggest challenge remains the African continent. But there are lots of reasons to answer in the negative:

For one: Africa is not a unified political entity, and any single leader could easily be viewed as favoring one country or region over another, casting the institution into even greater institutional legitimacy crises than it currently faces. Moreover, I admit that I hate to see top-notch African talent, especially in government and the financial sector, get scooped up by international organizations. I am all for a free market for executive labor (an oxymoron?), but it does send the wrong signal when the best and the brightest leave their own countries for a job based in Washington or Europe.

And of course, to the extent that the bank depends on resources from Europe and the U.S., pragmatically speaking, it’s pretty easy to predict that these rich governments would become even tighter with their aid dollars, euros, and yen if one of “their own” were not at the helm.

Despite all this, at present, a pretty good case can be made that the answer should be yes.

First, I have been surprised to read some of the lukewarm endorsements for Obama’s candidate, Dartmouth President and Partners in Health co-Founder, Jim Kim. I would have thought that Laurie Garrett would have been a big supporter, but she writes that he is “not a shoe-in.” Her blog posting offers some praise, but sometimes in a backhanded way that makes clear that maybe Kim is not the best idea:

Kim’s possible appointment is both a blessing and a challenge for global health and development advocates. Because he is the first individual nominated to lead the Bank who lacks either economics, business or US government  experience, Kim will be watched closely for failures to comprehend or maneuver through the often Byzantine world of finance and development. Experts in the field argue financial figures in language more akin to that used on Wall Street than inside the NGOs and schools of public health that execute global health programs. Moreover, Kim is prone to speaking with moral authority, putting the weight of his experience tackling tuberculosis behind controversial calls to action. Bankers and “moral authority” don’t usually mix well together, even when the financial institution is meant to lend to the poorest of the poor.

Meanwhile, many, including Richard Dowden of the Royal Africa Society, have argued that the time may be ripe for abandoning the tradition of an American appointment.

This year there is a really good candidate: Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. She is highly competent, energetic with a real vision of what the bank should be doing. But she is African – the Nigeria Finance Minister. The World Bank will be judged on the success or failure by what it does in Africa. She has the backing of the African Union…. The Bank led the way on structural adjustment. Its reforms may have helped in the long run to bring investment, but what really turned Africa’s economies round was China’s decision to buy its raw materials from the continent. That, combined with the arrival of mobile phones, and the rise of a new African middle class, has given Africa more than 10 years of growth. In 2008 the Western free market model exploded and since then the US and Europe have demonstrated neither success in their own economies nor found a new theoretical model to impose on others through the Bank and the Fund.

So what better moment to appoint Ngozi? She has already laboured in the dull desert of the Bank’s Washington offices and twice walked unscathed through the terrifying valley of Nigerian politics. She retains a strong vision of development for people, not for ideologies or theories. It’s time for America to listen to others – especially Africa. Mr Obama, are you listening?

It would be nice to say that the appointment should be decided based on personal qualifications alone, but that would be naive. Country of citizenship matters in terms of influence and perceptions. I think there are some risks, but in the current context, I agree that Ngozi woud be a very attractive choice for the post.

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