Africans are winning top jobs at international institutions
Today Africans lead several global institutions. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, has steered the World Health Organisation (WHO) through the pandemic. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian, heads the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Makh tar Diop, a Senegalese, presides over an investment portfolio worth about $64bn at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the semi-independent arm of the World Bank that invests in private firms. A stitch-up gives the top jobs at the World Bank and IMF to America and Europe. But for just the second time a sub-Saharan African, Antoinette Sayeh of Liberia, is a deputy managing director of the IMF. Each is highly qualified. Ms Okonjo-Iweala, Mr Diop and Ms Sayeh were all finance ministers and had all worked at the World Bank. Dr Tedros was health minister and then foreign minister. That they all have big jobs at once is partly by chance. But there are signs that governments have deliberately sought Africans to lead big institutions. “There was a lot of feeling that it was Africa’s turn—and that it was the turn for a woman,” says Keith Rockwell, the headtopics.com
WTO’s spokesman, of the mood before Ms Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment. This reflects a realisation that the focus of many of these institutions is shifting to sub-Saharan Africa, which has more than two-thirds of the world’s poor and where the average life expectancy is about 61 years, compared with 80 years in rich countries. Although Africa accounts for a small part of global commerce, it has the most to gain from trade. It will probably make up a growing share of the IMF’s work, too. Lending to sub-Saharan countries is 13 times higher since the pandemic struck. One thing the new bosses may offer is a “special ear” for issues on the continent, says Ms Sayeh. At the very least their leadership is bringing greater attention to Africa. “I don’t think anyone in the WTO set out to ignore the concerns of Africa,” says Ms Okonjo-Iweala. Nonetheless, she adds, “Africa has not benefited as much from trade integration…as it should have.” In theory many African countries get lower tariffs in richer countries through trade deals allowed under the WTO’s rules. Yet this does not work well in practice. “We really need to look at some of those agreements and make it easier for African countries,” says Ms Okonjo-Iweala. Mr Diop says the IFC has not neglected Africa in the past. Still, it plans to double annual investments on the continent to $10bn in the next few years.
Having Africans in charge of work-filled institutions can also provide role models and help overcome racist stereotypes. “It’s important for people to see an African leading an institution in the economic sphere,” says Ms Okonjo-Iweala.Dr Tedros was recently nominated unopposed to lead the WHO for a second term. Ms Okonjo-Iweala and Mr Diop doubtless aspire to similar endorsements of their work. Trailblazers sometimes feel extra pressure to succeed, and may be held to an unfairly high standard. Yet not all leaders of global institutions excel. The real sign that Africans have broken through the glass ceiling in international organisations will be when run-of-the-mill leadership by an African generates no more comment than the tepid tenure of a bigwig from Asia, Europe or the Americas.