It would be the first time in history the World Bank was run by a non-American but Nigeria’s Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala stands a real shot at claiming the title. This week, two events dovetailed to boost the chances of the charismatic West African economist.
First, the discovery of controversial remarks written by Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s pick, who, in the 2000 book Dying for Growth, praised Cuba for “prioritizing social equity.” Kim also leaned on quotes from anti-capitalist Noam Chomsky and wrote that “the quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of men and women.” Second, the unprecedented push Okonjo-Iweala is receiving in elite publications as her record is compared with Kim’s.
In the new issue of The Economist, the magazine’s editors give a full-throated endorsement of Okonjo-Iweala, saying the gap between her resume and Kim’s “changes the calculation” over a non-American running the World Bank. “Ms Okonjo-Iweala is in her second stint as Nigeria’s finance minister,” write the editors. “She has sobered up its public finances and injected a measure of transparency. She led the Paris Club negotiations to reschedule her country’s debt and earned rave reviews as managing director of the World Bank in 2007-11. Hers is the CV of a formidable public economist.”
No less flattering was he endorsement by The Financial Times on Tuesday, which touted her “real-world experience” of policymaking in one of the toughest regions in the world. “Her experience in tackling corruption would be helpful in the battle against the misuse of Bank funds,” FT’s editors wrote. “Her reforming drive has earned her credibility with the international community. That, and her charismatic personality, should help her to rally support for the Bank.”
It’s clear she’s well-liked but could she really break America’s 70-year hold on the bank’s leadership? “Yes,” says The Guardian’s Lant Pritchett in a detailed roadmap for her ascendancy to the presidency. Two major factors during the nomination process include the vulnerability Kim poses to Obama during his re-election and the threat of European leaders rushing behind Okonjo-Iweala.
One major vulnerability for Kim is, strangely, his qualifications. “Kim is a doctor and the narrowness of his expertise is likely to raise concerns among the bank’s big borrowers, given the array of issues a full service development organisation must address,” The Guardian’s Pritchett writes. He says “Critics of the Obama administration will seek to gain maximum leverage from Kim’s views on economic growth, opposition to transnational corporations, and praise of Cuba’s healthcare (and Castro as a leader).” The Economist also latched onto Kim’s credentials in today’s editorial. “Had Mr Obama not nominated him, he would be on no one’s shortlist to lead the World Bank.”
If that doesn’t put pressure on the administration, rising support for Okonjo-Iweala very well could. “For most countries, choosing Okonjo-Iweala vindicates the principle that the organisation’s head can be chosen on merit,” Pritchett writes. “She is clearly the best candidate for those countries that want a broad development agenda at the World Bank, which includes all the big borrowers and emerging-market countries that benefit from continued engagement with the bank.” And then there’s the awkward position it puts her opponents in. After all, does the president really want to be defending an under-qualified American when a charismatic, highly-credentialed African woman is running for the position?