Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is Brilliant

It’s the Brilliant issue of Portfolio this month, and under "Game Changers" one finds a lot of big-deal CEOs: Rupert Murdoch, Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, Ratan Tata. And right there next to them is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. I went down to Washington to talk to her for the magazine, and she had a lot to say about her new gig at the World Bank.

Okonjo-Iweala is something of a force of nature, and interviewing her is quite an experience: you basically walk in and hope that your first question is a good one, because she’ll talk non-stop until she has to go to her next meeting. In any case, this is what she told me when I asked her what she was passionate about in her new job as a managing director of the World Bank.

I think that one of the reasons I agreed to rejoin the bank was I thought that Bob Zoellick, when he talked to me about it, brought a sense of passion, mission, and clarity about what he wanted to do in the Bank that was very appealing. Basically it was the idea that this is an institution in which new ways of doing business, new instruments, new approaches to helping people in developing countries improve their living standards and reduce poverty. This was very appealing. And this mix of approaches would include not just your standard aid, but looking very much at using all the powers and instruments of the World Bank Group, including the IFC and MIGA, to try and deliver for people in developing countries.

Then he set out a vision to which I subscribe, which has to do with focusing on six strategic themes, designed again to focus on helping poor people but also middle-income countries within the World Bank Group to share with the poorer countries. It has a theme of focus on the poorest countries; focus on fragile states, states that are in conflict or post conflict, trying to help them; focus on middle-income countries because he feels that the bank still has business in those countries: we have the staff and the talent that could be appealing to help these countries move further along on the development path. A focus on Arab states and how you help them integrate into the world economy; a focus on global public goods – with all the talk about climate change issues now, and how does the World Bank use its human and financial resources to help developing countries adapt to the changing climate, and go beyond even adaptation to be very proactive in terms of their contribution to making the climate change agenda a positive one for the whole world. That was very appealing to me. And finally on the knowledge and learning: the idea that the World Bank is a repository of knowledge, and how do we better share this knowledge among ourselves and with our clients, and transmit the knowledge from one part of the globe to another. That’s why we are the World Bank.

So along these six themes, I thought this speaks to me. And particularly speaks to me because my brief at the bank is to have oversight of three important regions of the world. The Africa region obviously, which is very exciting; South Asia, which has the characteristic of having some of the largest numbers of the world’s poor, in India, but also a combination of middle-income characteristics. India has some very poor regions or provinces that compare with the poorest developing countries, but at the same time it has another part of India that is moving along as if it’s clearly an emerging market but also a developed country. They have made the world’s smallest car, that is affordable to low-income countries all over the world; they are behind industries ranging from steel to car manufacturing to textiles, even to hotels and tourism. They are branching out, these companies from India, and becoming global. And trying to buy up big companies – I think they’re trying to buy Jaguar now. So here’s a country that has that unique exciting mix of both middle-income characteristics with poor characteristics, in a state like Bihar, or Rajasthan. And then there’s Bangladesh and Pakistan.

I’m also responsible for Europe and Central Asia. You have again a very interesting mix of countries who are joining the EU and are part of the developed world, so to speak. And then you’ve got poor countries in Europe like Albania, you’ve got countries in conflict like Kosovo and Bosnia, you’ve got the Stans: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and countries like Kazakhstan which have a mixture of characteristics: they are poorer countries, some of them are resource-rich, which provides very exciting challenges. From my own experience in Nigeria: how do you manage these resources in a way which can benefit the population? Some of the things we managed to do there are very relevant to that experience.

So here’s a large portfolio of regions and countries that is very rich. And at the same time I’m also responsible for the bank’s human resources function. I have oversight on that, which means that I get to try and change the way that we manage our human resources, our skills mix, to make these strategic themes work. To me it’s a good combination of trying to make the vision a reality.

I want to go further into the excitement of working on these countries with this very exciting mix. There are issues I’m very passionate about. How do you remove the constraints to growth in these countries? How do you work with them to bring in the kind of development that can really reach down to the poorer people in the population? And if you look across both the poor and middle-income countries, you see there’s one common theme that they all come back with, and that is a focus on infrastructure. And infrastructure of two types: physical infrastructure is becoming a constraint, in many of these countries, to development. And that makes you think: how can we help them with infrastructure in a way that also helps integrate regions or sub-regions? In Africa you have landlocked countries that have no access, and you can work on infrastructure which links them with other countries and gives them access to the sea for their exports: roads, railways, ports.

More and more the bank is doing regional integration projects in infrastructure. In the energy sector, in the roads sector: in energy we supported the West African gas pipeline that takes gas from Nigeria all the way through the west coast, going up to Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and even trying to stretch to Senegal now. That’s a very positive type of development to support. And we’re looking at various other sub-regional projects that can link countries together. In aviation, in energy, in roads, even in water. We supported the Leostho Highlands water project that takes water from Lesotho to South Africa. In Mozambique we’ve supported several projects that provide energy for the sub-region. So these are some of the things linking these countries in Africa. In South Asia you can look at the same thing: there are already links between Nepal and India that are long-standing, there’s potential to do projects that link the small landlocked countries with the bigger countries and give them a chance.

So those kind of things are quite exciting because they have lots of potential. At the same time there’s also the chance to look at the human development skills building. Many of these countries are hampered by lack of skills, be it in Africa, in Central Asia, or South Asia. And the need for helping countries grow skills that can take them forward in a globalizing world is very very important. You see how India has these two economies. They’ve leapfrogged, with the IT skills and the knowledge skills: they’ve become the center of outsourcing in the world, and the center of ICT development. And all the people that they trained, 50 years ago, are now out here running Microsoft, running IBM, all the hardware and software companies, and they’re sending knowledge and investment back to India. So if you develop your skills at an early stage, it can pay off years and years later. We’re trying some of those same ideas to help Africa, we’re going to see what more we can do to still help India: India still needs skills. And the other countries. So the human development angle is very attractive.

And then you talk about global public goods. I’m very passionate about the issue of being able to work with countries on the issue of climate change. Again if you look at African countries: how do you help them develop? It’s a great adaptation to climate change issues without letting it stop their development. How do you do agriculture, which is very important on the continent, even in South Asia and parts of Central Asia, where agriculture is huge, in terms of cotton, wheat, corn, and so on — how do you do this whilst helping farmers adapt to climate change? Those are some of the things that are interesting.

Now we’ve got floods that are unprecedented in many of these countries: not that they didn’t used to occur, but the frequency is getting higher. You’ve got droughts that come, again with higher frequency. So countries are going through some degree of stress. So what do you do to capture and conserve water, when there are these floods, so that when the droughts come, you can deal with it, through irrigation systems, through allowing people to tap into the water that you’ve already captured. Right now there are many countries where they don’t have these systems. You have the floods, and then the water is gone and drained away after a lot of damage. And that’s followed by a period of drought in which people have no access. So what do you do to help these countries to simply have some water management techniques which can help with adaptation.

What about forestry, and conserving forests? The World Bank has played a very important role in the conference in Bali. In also trying to get people to focus on the issue of deforestation in developing countries, and how do you work with developing countries and remunerate them for keeping the forest? Because they’re good carbon capture. But if the world wants this to happen, wants countries to maintain their forests and not cut them down, then you also have to think of incentives to do that. And these are issues where the Bank is uniquely placed to help.

There’s also the whole area of clean energy. There’s certainly technologies: you know that India is industrializing, so is China, and even some of the poorer countries, they will be industrializing and having their own manufacturing capability. They require a lot of energy to do that. Everybody’s aware that China’s building a new coal-fired plant every few days, and a key issue with all this is that the technologies exist now which enable them to make these plants into clean energy plants. But we need to support them. The developed world needs to help bring resources to invest. The World Bank needs to use both its expertise and its resources to help these countries to adapt.

The bank is going to develop several clean energy funds, running into several billions, to support developing countries to do this. And there are many developed country governments that are very supportive: the US, Japan, the UK are supportive of these clean energy funds. So things like that are quite exciting for me, because the fact is we will have resources to help these developing countries adapt in a way that supports their development. It’s not "manage for climate change or develop". It’s both. You can do both. And we have the capacity to do it.

And finally we mustn’t forget that we have been working with countries on another set of global public goods: managing diseases like HIV/Aids, malaria, turberculosis. And the Bank has done quite a good job: I can get figures of how much we’ve put into these areas. We are one of the biggest institutions supporting this. Diseases know no boundaries. So it’s a global public – maybe it’s a global public bad. And the Bank works on these global public bads, to make sure that they turn into goods.

And finally on the private sector side. I just want to mention that the Bank is deploying many instruments. In the IFC and MIGA portions of the Bank, there are so many things we are doing to support small and medium enterprises. In many countries. You know I started a fund before coming here, I co-founded a fund to support investment in African women entrepeneurs. So imagine how exciting it is for me that here, I’m at this institution where you can multiply that kind of action. The IFC now reaches millions and millions of small entrepeneurs through its actions. It suppports microfinance banks in various countries. It’s even starting funds that can invest in small and medium enterprises. You can leverage the bank’s instruments, financial and human, in order to really deliver for developing countries. And if I can help push that in those regions I’m responsible for, I feel that’s why I’m back.

At which point Okonjo-Iweala had to run to a meeting with Bob Zoellick. You can see why he appointed her one of his key lieutenants.

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2 Responses to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is Brilliant

  1. Pingback: The ideal nominee for World Bank president | Felix Salmon

  2. Nnamdi Agha says:

    She is a brilliant and passionate fellow, this woman. Just imagine the above is the answer to just one question.

    She is prepared for her assignment and I wish her success as she assumes the Presidency of the World Bank (I hope she gets appointed).

    More success, Dr. Ngozi.


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