World Bank Needs To Change, Challenger Says

The World Bank has been led by an American since its founding in 1946. Now, two candidates from developing countries, including Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, say their experiences make them better candidates. Okonjo-Iweala speaks with host Michel Martin about why the World Bank should open up its selection process.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, as many teenagers start the summer job hunt, we'll check in on a long-standing debate over teens and work. Some parents say it builds character; others worry that it distracts from school and the other rituals of growing up. We'll ask our diverse panel of moms: Should teens work? That's later in the program.

But first to a hot debate in the international arena. For the first time in history, the U.S. nominee to head the World Bank is facing a formal challenge. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, currently serving as Nigeria's minister of finance, is one of two candidates from developing countries who are under consideration for the post. The other is Jose Antonio Ocampo. He's a former minister of finance for Columbia.

The World Bank has been led by an American ever since its founding in 1946. The frontrunner, nominated by President Obama, is global health expert and Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim. Okonjo-Iweala contends that her experience, including as a former managing director of the World Bank, makes her the stronger candidate, and she joins us now to tell us more.

Minister, welcome back. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you, Michel. Yes.

MARTIN: I understand that a number of African leaders were clamoring to throw your name in the ring. I just wanted to ask if this was your choice to contend for the post or were you drafted.

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, a number of African leaders called my president, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan of Nigeria, asked that my name be put up to contest for this post. I feel very honored that they did that. As you know, I had recently gone back to Nigeria again to be finance minister for the second time and was focusing on my job. But they felt very strongly about this.

MARTIN: Could you briefly tell us, if you are appointed, what is your vision for the post and why do you think you are the best for the job?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, let me start out by saying that I have utmost respect for the other people contesting for this job, Dr. Jim Yong Kim and Professor Jose Ocampo. These are very good people. I also think I have strong qualifications that have prepared me for this job. I have lived poverty. Through my life I have lived in a country which went through conflict.

I've seen the issue of how to improve living standards in practice. And I've worked all my life on poverty issues. At the World Bank I've had experience well beyond Africa to East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Europe, and so on. You know, all over the world. And I think I've learned a lot of lessons on how to produce results that can materially improve the lives of poor people.

Now, in terms of the World Bank, I think this is one of the most important institutions in the world and it has a strong collaborative. The role of the U.S. is much appreciated and very important, as is the role of Europe, the role of emerging markets and developing countries. This is an institution in which all the member countries have a strong role to play.

And I think it can be an instrument to really move development issues in a faster, a more nimble fashion. My vision is of a World Bank fighting poverty with passion. That's the mission of the World Bank and I share it completely. But the issue is how. How do you do it? I think you do it by tackling one of the most enduring problems of our time, which is job creation. I have yet to see a poor person who did not want the dignity of a job.

So I see the World Bank as an institution, World Bank group, putting all its instruments at work to create jobs. You know, unemployment all over the world, be it in Europe, the U.S., Africa and elsewhere, is the key problem, particularly for youth. If we do not face this issue of youth unemployment, we will have many more problems in the world in years to come.

In summary, my vision is of a World Bank that can be made to work faster internally by improving on its processes, delivering on those crucial issues.

MARTIN: So Minister, you can see(ph) the argument that the developing countries are making. There have often been in the past, while people appreciate the intentions of the World Bank, many of the so-called client nations, if I can put it that way, have felt that the bank's policies don't help build their economies and would prefer to have somebody with a direct relationship with the developing countries at the helm.

On the other hand, there's been this kind of gentleman's agreement that the U.S. picks the World Bank chief and the Europeans choose the chief for the International Monetary Fund. And in part, you know, it's the politics of it. I mean, that these are the donor nations. It's hard enough to build political constituency around international aid, particularly in the U.S., and that many of these countries feel that their own citizens, who are the primary funders of these agencies, would prefer to have someone from their countries at the helm. I mean, how do you answer that argument?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, I think that that's the issue, not that the U.S. should not lead the institution. We're very open to the U.S. or Europe or any part of the member countries of the World Bank leading the institution. The issue is a question of do you want to get the best person to lead this institution or not, the premier development institution of the world.

I think the values that takes part in the U.S. are those of merit, openness and transparency. And about a year ago the shareholders of the World Bank, through the Development Committee, as well as the G20 themselves, put on paper that they want to change the way global governance works. They want to make the leadership of these institutions to be done on the basis of merit, openness and transparency.

That means that the U.S. can run it if the best candidate is from the U.S. - equally, if it's from Europe, Africa, Asia, anywhere. That's what we subscribe to. So I would not - we're trying to say this is what the shareholders said they want. And so we should open it up to merit and to competition and let the best person who is most qualified get the job.

Because that's what they said they wanted. So I think we should not talk about anything but, you know, excluding the U.S. The U.S. is a valued shareholder, as is Europe, and we must treasure all of that. But they themselves subscribe to this and I think that all we're saying is, can we do this on merit?

I have not been asking people to support my candidacy. I've not. I've just asked them to support the open merit-based process, because these are the values that everyone says we should subscribe to, both internationally and in our own country.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Ngozi Okojo-Iweala about her candidacy to lead the World Bank. She's currently serving as the finance minister of Nigeria. She's a former managing director of the World Bank. To the merit-based argument, I understand that part of your argument is that as a former managing director with deep experience at the bank, that your learning curve would be almost zero, that you could immediately hit the ground running and get the work started.

In contrast to - and I understand that you've expressed your respect for him - Dr. Jim Yong Kim, who has extensive experience working in developing countries but has not ever worked at this institution before. On the other hand, though, I have to press again the question of the political support for these institutions at a time when both the United States and the European economies are still under stress and that there is a lot of political skepticism about ongoing efficacy of these institutions.

How do you maintain that support in these donor countries among their constituencies for these institutions?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, I think I should really limit myself to talking about what I can do. As I've told you, I already have expressed tremendous respect for the other candidates who are vying for this position and to me may the best person win, you know, and run the institution. I think that these institutions remain very important but we also need to recognize the changing equation in the world, that, you know, the world has been changing.

Emerging markets and developing countries are contributing more to global growth than they ever did. They're contributing 60 percent or more. They are important in trade, in investment. In fact, in many developing countries the biggest investors are now other developing countries.

They are also crying out to be recognized. So the issue is not that we don't value the traditional donors and shareholders, the big shareholders and institutions. We do. But this is also a collaborative, and so we would want to work with the traditional donors. We would want to bring on board the emerging markets and the developing countries that are becoming more and more important in this global equation. And we would want to try and find a formula in which all of them can be winners.

So I don't see it as either - or I'm sure there's some configuration in which the donor countries can feel very valued and be able to give the political support. And surely, you don't also want an institution in which, you know, the people for whom you are doing development are divorced. You know don't - you know, you surely want politics in which all are engaged and not the donor countries only interested and the developing countries are doing something else because they feel the institution doesn't work for them.

We must get an institution that works for everybody. And in terms of handling the issues, I can only speak for myself. I can tell you that I'm well prepared. I feel very humble; the challenge and the chance of managing this institution. But because I know where the problems lie within the institution and I also know the strong opportunities that this institution has, and that is why I feel that if I got the chance I could really bring those two together, build on the strong points of the institution. I wouldn't need time to find out what are the strong points, while trying to mitigate the weaker points and make them better, work better to get results on the ground. I think we all want an institution that will deliver better for the traditional donors, as well as the emerging market countries.

MARTIN: How has this process been so far? As we mentioned, this is the first time there's ever been, really, a challenge like this, a formal challenge by anyone to the selection of the U.S., and I just wanted to ask, what do you make of it?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, I guess everybody's learning, you know, since this is the first time. I think even those going through the process are trying to find the rules and, you know, regulations and guides by which they will run the process.

I think, so far, it's been OK. It's really just about to start. We had had an interview in Brussels with the European ministers and I think they wanted to have a first time feel for themselves of the three conjugates. I think that was fine. We went to Brussels to do that.

But obviously, this is a learning experience for everyone. As it goes along, maybe they'll be fine-tuning and, you know, clear a path forward.

MARTIN: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a candidate to become the World Bank chief. She is currently serving as the minister of finance in Nigeria and she was kind enough to join us from the offices of the World Bank here in Washington.

Minister Ngozi, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you, Michel, very much.

MARTIN: And we'd like to let you know that we have reached out to the other candidates who are in the running to lead the World Bank. They are, once again, Dartmouth College president, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, and former Columbian finance minister, Jose Antonio Ocampo. We hope to be able to bring you those conversations soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, adults may be having a slightly easier time in the job market, but teens who want a job are still having a terrible go of it and researcher Michael Saltsman says this is a bigger issue than kids not being able to go to the movies.

MICHAEL SALTSMAN: Teens are picking up a lot more in those jobs than the paycheck. They're picking up a lot of skills that are going to help them get a better job later in life.

MARTIN: That conversation is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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