/ 25 April 2012

Campaign for World Bank head offers Africa lessons

Although other sources of funds are growing in importance, the World Bank will remain an important and controversial actor in Africa for the foreseeable future, providing both financing and policy advice. It is also likely to become key to South Africa’s ambitious infrastructure plan.

The World Bank president has always been chosen by the United States president. This year, despite US commitments to share that power, Barack Obama chose Dr Jim Yong Kim.

Yet, for the first time there was a contested selection process and Africa can take credit for that. Africa united around Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala and won support for her from most developing countries. The experience offers Africa and South Africa, which played a leading role in the campaign, three lessons on international economic governance diplomacy.

First, Africa can be an effective player in global economic governance affairs. It forced the bank into a precedent-setting competitive selection process and exposed the hollowness of the process by showing that the most qualified candidate was African. Africa should approach other international economic governance issues in a similar way. It could demand greater responsiveness to African concerns from the international Financial Stability Board and the International Monetary Fund.

Second, the process showed how much global economic governance is still in the hands of the Group of Seven nations. To contest this control, Africa could form tactical alliances with other states and elements of international civil society to promote issues of common interest, such as access to financing.

Third, Africa needs to push to make the World Bank responsive to its needs. African countries cannot avoid using the bank’s services for now, whatever the problems with it. Thus, they have a stake in reforming it and must participate in efforts to improve its governance and policies. This will not be easy. But with careful selection of the issues on which it demands reform and by alliances with other stakeholders, Africa can make the bank a more acceptable partner.

A test of this approach would be the World Bank’s current re-evaluation of its safeguard policies that govern its approach to the environmental and social aspects of the projects it funds — complex issues such as climate change, pollution and the protection of affected population groups.

These policies are of particular relevance to Africa because, in addition to their application in World Bank-funded projects, they influence the social and environmental approaches of other funders of large infrastructure projects.

Danny Bradlow is the South African Research Chairs Initiative professor of international development law and African economic relations at the University of Pretoria and a partner in the global economic governance project with the South African Institute of International Affairs.