Africa Notes: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: not an American, but an African, and a woman

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: A Missed Opportunity?
I meant to comment on this last week, before it became a moot point. But yesterday, the World Bank selected Obama’s nominee, Jim Yong Kim, as its new President (Business Insider). This should come as no surprise, as the US has always had its choice selected. And I am personally hopeful that he will do a good job.

Not an American
Nevertheless, it is still worthwhile to consider the significance of Ngozi’s candidacy. As Drezner noted, the rhetoric surrounding this reached a surprising level and for the first time the World Bank’s board did consider her in additional to the US candidate. Consider noted realist Stephen Walt’s mention of this as a “missed opportunity” for the US. He has interesting take on what the “smart” realist position should have been here:

Of course, realists expect powerful states to use international institutions to advance their own interests, which is why they want to make sure that the people in charge are reliable. If I were president, I would want the World Bank to be led by a highly competent individual who wasn’t about to harm U.S. interests. But a smart realist would also recognize that imposing the U.S. choice on others every single time is bound to trigger resentment, and encourage rising powers like China, Brazil, India, and others to redouble efforts to break Washington’s stranglehold. And every time the United States has to twist arms or use its privileged position to get its way, other states quietly seethe and anti-American forces are handed another nice talking point to use to undermine the U.S. image around the world.

But an African
Over at Global Voices, they bring the attention back to Ngozi herself, wondering whether the campaign was only symbolic.
Ngozi herself was very graceful in her concession to Dr. Kim. But she also noted that she saw this as a significant effort to reform an old institution. From her Facebook page:

by our participation we have won important victories. We have shown what is possible. Our credible and merit-based challenge to a long-standing and unfair tradition will ensure that the process of choosing a World Bank president will never be the same again. The struggle for greater equity and fairness has reached a critical point and the hands of the clock cannot be turned back.

And a Woman
So the dominant meme above is about the World Bank, the institutional reform that might be needed there, and concerns about North-South relations. We also hear online about how this was “a victory for Africa”. But it should not be missed that here we have a strong African WOMAN who played a key role in the political drama. Forbes recently listed her as the 87th most powerful women in the world. Had she secured the World Bank bid, I am certain she would have risen quite quickly in their rankings. She has a history of activism on the part of African women, s described over at the International Women’s Health Coalition. There she describes her “community” approach to supporting women’s rights:

In the early 1980s I got involved with Women in Nigeria (WIN), which was a women’s rights activist group and feminist organization with men members as well. I was one of the founding members of WIN, I started the Kano state branch, and in the mid 1980s I was the national coordinating secretary. But even at that time I felt that focusing on women alone would never bring about the kind of radical transformation of the conditions of womanhood that we envisioned for Nigeria—whether we were talking about patriarchy, or our relationships with men, or our ability to exercise our reproductive rights, or even our ability to attain reproductive health. Focusing on women or on one single issue was not going to do it—we needed to work with men and young people and women together. So, I felt that only by taking a community perspective could we create the sociocultural environment necessary for her to assert or express her full personhood as a woman.

Since those earlier days, she has risen to be a major force in Nigerian politics (the Finance Minister), and had a successful career with the World Bank, including being Managing Director prior to her current job in Nigeria. In Nigeria, her biggest battles have been against corruption. A brief recent biography at The Economist helps highlight how brave she truly is:

Death threats are no rarity, and the barrage of abuse from the national press and in online forums is continuous. Often referred to as Okonjo-“Wahala”, meaning “trouble” in pidgin, she does not tiptoe around. “If vested interests, benefiting from corruption, are attacking left, right and centre, then you are doing something right. The degree of attack is a barometer,” she says.

One of my favorite TED videos, which I often show to students, is her presentation on why Africans should accept aid. The pertinent bit begins at about 6:40, when she states:

African states have been giving the other countries aid… The UK and the US could not have been built today without Africa’s aid. It is all the resources that were taken from Africa — including human — that built these countries today.

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This is a strong woman who would have been able to play an important role as head of the World Bank. But at 57 years of age, maybe this wasn’t her last chance?

See also The Guardian’s profile on Ngozi.