African viewpoint: Banking on change?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in March 2012
Image caption Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala could make history on two counts

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, writer Sola Odunfa considers whether the US has the stomach for change on the global financial front.

In the next few weeks a new president will be announced for World Bank in Washington DC.

Ordinarily this should not be something that excites anybody outside the inner recesses of governments.

But this time it does - because it offers an opportunity for historic changes.

Firstly, it gives the possibility of having the first non-American as president in the history of the institution.

And that possibility is strong, considering that the most outstanding candidate, technically, for the position is an African.

Secondly, that candidate is a woman - Nigeria's Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former vice-president of the bank.

She is jointly nominated by Angola, South Africa and Nigeria and sponsored by the African Union (AU).

The two other candidates are Jose Antonio Ocampo, Colombia's former finance minister and university professor - nominated by Brazil; and Jim Yong Kim, a doctor and leading UN health official - nominated by US President Barack Obama.

The presidency of World Bank has been exclusive to the United States since it was founded in 1944 - and has never been held by a woman.

Although the office is filled by election, the process is weighted in favour of the major economic powers, just as free, fair and democratic elections in many African countries are programmed to favour particular parties or ethnic groups.

Swallowing the medicine

Uncle Sam, being the largest contributor to the bank's funds, has about 16% of all votes in its hat.

Added to those of its traditional European allies, the votes give its candidate an unassailable advantage.

Image caption US President Barack Obama favours Jim Yong Kim (C) for the World Bank position

Whenever the coast is stormy US officials dip into their diplomatic hat and wave a warning to everyone that if the American candidate loses there will be no guarantee that the US Congress will continue to fund the bank.

But after having produced the bank's first 11 successive presidents, America is now under increased pressure to support the election of the 12th from a developing nation.

This time other countries are hoping that they can persuade the US to subtly allow the selection to be based on merit, arguing it would be in America's own interest to have a better-performing bank - and, in exchange, secure future political support in other areas.

Proponents of this idea say such a change has the potential of making the bank more responsive to its founding objectives.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says even the acceptance of the candidature of Africa's Ms Okonjo-Iweala is "clear evidence that the bank is prepared to embrace a paradigm change from perceptions that have not been of benefit to the global economy".

And the lady herself says "we are not asking the US not to compete, we are just asking for a level playing field where candidates can be evaluated on their merits".

The two other candidates are not without merit.

Dr Kim, a former director in the HIV department at the World Health Organization, delivered life-saving anti-retroviral drugs to three million people in poor countries within three years.

Professor Ocampo's stint as Colombia's finance minister was highly regarded.

However, neither has Ms Okonjo-Iweala's international economic exposure - and she is the only woman.

There is a tradition amongst the Hausa of northern Nigeria that when you offer them a drug for an ailment they ask if you have administered it on yourself.

That way they determine your knowledge of their ailment, the drug's potency and its side effects.

Of the three candidates, Ms Okonjo-Iweala has been a participant at some level in the formulation of World Bank policies, an executor of those policies in a debtor country and a victim of the side effects.

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