A golden opportunity for the rest of the world to show Barack Obama the meaning of meritocracy
The World Bank is the worldâ€™s premier development institution. Its boss needs experience in government, in economics and in finance (it is a bank, after all). He or she should have a broad record in development, too. Ms Okonjo-Iweala has all these attributes, and Colombiaâ€™s JosÃ© Antonio Ocampo has a couple. By contrast Jim Yong Kim, the American public-health professor whom Barack Obama wants to impose on the bank, has at most one.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala is in her second stint as Nigeriaâ€™s finance minister. She has not broken Nigeriaâ€™s culture of corruptionâ€”an Augean taskâ€”but she has sobered up its public finances and injected a measure of transparency. She led the Paris Club negotiations to reschedule her countryâ€™s debt and earned rave reviews as managing director of the World Bank in 2007-11. Hers is the CV of a formidable public economist.
Mr Ocampo was also finance minister, though his time in office, 1996-98, saw the budget deficit balloon. He ran the mildly statist UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. His is the CV of the international bureaucrat.
Mr Kim, the head of a university in New England, has done a lot of good things in his life, but the closest he has come to running a global body was as head of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organisationâ€”not a post requiring tough choices between, say, infrastructure, health and education. He pioneered trials of aid programmes before they became fashionable and set up an outfit called Partners in Health which does fine work in Haiti and Peru. But this is a charity, not a development bank. Had Mr Obama not nominated him, he would be on no oneâ€™s shortlist to lead the World Bank. (Indeed he is a far worse example of Western arrogance than Christine Lagarde, whom the Europeans shoehorned into the IMF job last year: the French finance minister plainly had the CV for the job.)
Ms Okonjo-Iweala is an orthodox economist, which many will hold against her. But if there is one thing the world has discovered about poverty reduction in the past 15 years, it is that development is not something rich countries do to poor ones. It is something poor countries manage for themselves, mainly by the sort of policies that Ms Okonjo-Iweala has pursued with some success in Nigeria.
Mr Kimâ€™s views on development are harder to divine. But what can be gleaned is worrying. In an introduction to a 2000 book called â€œDying for Growthâ€, he wrote that â€œthe quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of men and womenâ€, quoted Noam Chomsky and praised Cuba for â€œprioritising social equityâ€. Were Mr Kim hoping to lead Occupy Wall Street, such views would be unremarkable. But the purposes of the World Bank, according to its articles of agreement, are â€œto promote private foreign investmentâ€¦[and to] encourage international investment for the development of the productive resources of members.â€ The Bank promotes growth because growth helps the poor. If Mr Kim disagrees, he should stick to medicine.
Ready. Steady. Ngo
For almost 70 years, the leadership of the IMF and World Bank has been subject to an indefensible carve-up. The head of the IMF is European; the World Bank, American. This shabby tradition has persisted because it has not been worth picking a fight over. The gap between Mr Kim and Ms Okonjo-Iweala changes the calculation. It gives others a chance to insist on the best candidate, not simply the American one. Mr Ocampo should bow out gracefully. And the rest of the world should rally round Ms Okonjo-Iweala. May the best woman win.