“I know what it means to go to the stream to fetch water... what it means when people are poor and don’t have enough to eat,” she said, recalling what it was like to grow up in a Nigerian village with her grandmother. “It’s not good enough to say you know about poverty. You have to live it.”
Now, Okonjo-Iweala is the finance minister of Nigeria. She is well-acquainted with the World Bank, having previously served as a managing director under bank president Robert Zoellick for four years.
But if she were to win the presidency, Okonjo-Iweala would be a trailblazer, becoming not only the first woman to head the bank, but also the first president not put forth by the U.S.
Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo are vying for the job along with the U.S. nominee, Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim, who has also received an endorsement from Canada and Japan.
In a letter sent to bank members last week, a group of 39 former World Bank officials said it supports the Nigerian economist’s candidacy, citing her “deep experience in international and national issues of economic management.”
Okonjo-Iweala explained at length why she thinks creating jobs — especially among the youth — should be a top priority for the bank.
“Wherever you look, the issue is about jobs,” she said, listing high unemployment numbers in countries as economically diverse as Spain, the U.S., India and Nigeria. “I have yet to meet a single poor person who did not want the dignity of the job. ”
She said that the Arab Spring has showed how problematic it can be leave the youth unemployed.
The other major thrust of Okonjo-Iweala’s speech was the World Bank’s need to move more swiftly. Though she professed to be tired from her rigorous interview, the Nigerian economist’s voice was filled with energy and urgency when she addressed the bank’s need for speed.
“We need a Rolodex of experts who we can call on very quickly,” she said, remembering a request she made as finance minister. The World Bank told her it would take three weeks; the IMF answered instantly. “We need to be fast in delivering knowledge. Low-income countries are no longer willing to wait.”
To make her point, Okonjo-Iweala brought out a physical list of 11 things that frustrated her during her time at the bank.
She said that while it’s understandable at a 60-year-old organization for “inertia to set in,” several things that have always been done one way “will have to go.”
Okonjo-Iweala also said she would push the bank to help countries better fight climate change, deal with social and gender rules, and build better health systems.
Kim, her challenger, has spent much of his life working to improve health outcomes in the developing world.
The Nigerian economist acknowledged that to do these things, the bank would need more capital, though she said that may not happen soon.
The institution lent $57 billion last year.
Okonjo-Iweala addressed the fact that this was the first time the playing field for the bank president was widened outside the U.S.
“It’s not really about a Nigerian... or an American [as president],” she said, dressed in traditional bright blue and yellow African attire. “The issue is who brings the best skills to bear.”
Okonjo-Iweala dismissed the idea that Congress would give less funding to the bank if it were run by a non-American.
If needed, she said, she would use her “persuasive powers” to convince Congress.
As an example of her forceful diplomacy, Okonjo-Iweala related how she dealt with the most unpopular point in her career, when as Nigerian finance minister she removed a fuel subsidy that led to Occupy Nigeria protests.
“After the protests... we spent four hours together talking, Occupy Nigeria and I,” she said, beginning to laugh. “And by the time we were leaving they were asking if we could take pictures together.”