World Bank hopeful vows to focus on jobs

April 9, 2012

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of three candidates to lead the World Bank, said Monday that she would focus on an issue that affects developed and developing nations: job creation.

After what she called a “marathon” 31 / 2-hour interview with the World Bank board of directors, Okonjo-Iweala spoke at an event Monday hosted by Washington Post Live and the Center for Global Development. She stressed how her vision for the bank would be shaped by personal experience.

“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 President Robert B. Zoellick for four years.

If she was to win the presidency, Okonjo-Iweala would become the first woman to head the bank and the first president not put forth by the United States.

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 been endorsed by 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 young people — 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 varied as Spain, the United States, India and Nigeria. “I have yet to meet a single poor person who did not want the dignity of the job.”

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, recounting a request she had made as finance minister. The World Bank told her it would take three weeks; the International Monetary Fund answered instantly. “We need to be fast in delivering knowledge. Low-income countries are no longer willing to wait.”

She said that although 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.

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