As usual with just about everything we have done in the country in the last couple of years, there was a farcical quality to Nigeria’s bid to have its coordinating minister for the economy Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, succeed to the office of president of the World Bank.
Paradoxically, the main arguments in support of her candidature were flawless. Take merit. The enthronement of the principle that for best effect, only the talented should be chosen, and that people should advance on the strength of their achievement has been the discriminating competence in mankind’s incredible march through civilisations. It has ensured in those economies and sectors where we (as a species have made the most progress) that the right answers emerge even as the questions to which each civilisation has had to respond get more intricate.
The World Bank’s mission of helping reduce poverty frames this task poignantly. The prevalence of poverty on the scale in which it is to be encountered across large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, and in parts of South East Asia is the single strongest reproach on this civilisation. Its thoughts, its processes, its structures, its governance, and the increasingly sophisticated technologies that underpin these, are rendered that much smaller by each child that goes to bed on an empty stomach, each new polio case, each new instance of a pregnant woman dying at childbirth because she’d expended so much energy walking the considerable distance from her homestead to the nearest clinic.
Thus, there is unquestionable value in ensuring that whomsoever is vested with responsibility for addressing issues concerning the amelioration of poverty across the face of the earth knows his/her subject matter thoroughly. Now, this is not to hold, as advocates of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala were wont to in the run-up to the anti-climactic vote that only inmates of a madhouse are best qualified to manage one properly. For just as non-lunatics may have the perspectives necessary to address the peculiar issues of an asylum, it is also the case that organisations, especially ones crying out for structural reforms have often benefitted from an outsider’s perspective and reforming verve.
Nonetheless, a commitment to merit transcends the challenge of ensuring that the best available candidate for any assignment gets it. In the end, it is just as much about how we make these choices. An inclusive system, especially one that is designed and operated to go round the bogs of endless debate at its periphery is always superior to one where unrepresentative elites make the main decisions before mirrors in barely lit smoke-filled rooms. It made sense therefore to shoot for a more inclusive approach in the choice of a new World Bank president.
However, as those who have followed efforts to reform the United Nations will attest, “democracy” is in want of a good leg to stand on in these matters. The World Bank is not a government of any sort — at least not one where it would have made sense or been practicable to have a global vote for its president. It is instead akin to a cooperative comprising 187 member countries. “These member countries, or shareholders” according to the World Bank” are represented by a Board of Governors, who are the ultimate policymakers at the World Bank”. This cooperative, as with most such is governed by rules. In this case, the IBRD Articles of Agreement, which provides amongst others that “Each member shall have two hundred fifty votes plus one additional vote for each share of stock held”, and that “The minimum number of shares to be subscribed by the original members shall be those set forth in Schedule A”. Ensuring thereby that the United States with US$3.18 billion of the original US$9.1 billion shares is the top dog at the institution.
Add to this the post-war circumstance of this institution’s birth, and you can understand the sense in which the US and Europe divvied up the top offices amongst themselves. Arguably, there is now a strong argument for change in the governance of the institutions. If for no other reason than the fact that the world has come a long way from its 1945 encumbrances. Consequently, as we looked on another chance to change the World Bank’s leadership, the pertinent questions were: “What will be the main motivation for the changes that most commentators were demanding?” “Would it be because some countries have further impoverished themselves, thus requiring more external help from multilaterals?” “Or because the Japanese, Chinese, and Brazilians now punch at heavier weights than they did some fifty years ago, and thus deserve a look in on key global questions?
None of these questions, nor any of the possible answers to them supported Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy. The sad thing is that she, apparently, was aware of these!