There can be no doubting the résumé of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, named today by Robert Zoellick to a top position at the World Bank. A survivor of Nigeria’s Biafran war, she made her way to the United States at age 18 and received degrees in economics from Harvard and MIT. A 21-year stint at the World Bank was followed by a stunning term as finance minister in Nigeria during the administration of Olesugun Obasanjo. Among her accomplishments, negotiating a debt relief deal, tackling corruption, and boosting the nation’s cash reserves by billions of dollars.
Some enthusiasts pitched her as a replacement for Paul Wolfowitz. That didn’t fly. But the Financial Times’ Krishna Guha speculates that her appointment “is likely to be a popular choice with the bank’s staff and non-governmental organizations,” and that it “will be viewed internally as a signal that Mr Zoellick wants to press for reform by enlisting the support of bank staff.”
This should not be taken to mean that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is some kind of fire-breathing radical who will shake things up from top to bottom in her new role as one of the bank’s three managing directors. In many ways, Okonjo-Iweala represents down-the-line World Bank orthodoxy. During a presentation at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in March, she drew a round of applause when she touted her efforts to privatize sectors of Nigeria’s economy, as she declared “the state should not be in the business of producing goods and services because it is inefficient and incompetent” with a flourish that suggested it wasn’t the first time she had delivered that sentence to positive effect.
And yet, she’s also clearly not business at usual. In March, in California, she appeared intent on making an advertising pitch encouraging greater financial investment in Africa. In June, at another TED conference, this time in Africa, she was less polished and more personable. She spoke movingly of her own experiences as a teenager saving her 3-year-old sister’s life during the Biafran war, as part of an exploration of how aid, the private sector and government must work together to solve Africa’s problems. She is passionate, cogent and compelling. She might even be the kind of person you’d want in a position of power.