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How Africans emerged in the World Bank, IMF

By Onome Amawhe

The World Bank Group/IMF African Staff Society is an employee resource that advocates for racial equality. The goal of CORE is to “facilitate greater awareness, and advance a better understanding of African affairs among the staff of the World Bank Group (WBG) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)”. Founded more than sixty years ago, the key plank for which the society gained more popularity was for the career progression of the African professionals who work in the Breton Woods institutions.
Prior to the society’s emergence and long after, recruitment of African staff in both institutions were comparatively lower and for the few that were in, there were always at the lowest grades with a very slow rate of promotion. Dr. Sidi Jammeh is a former World Bank staff and an advocate for racial equality. As one of the Society’s past chair, he has always voiced his opinion, pushing for improvements in the status of racial equality in the WBG/IMF.

WHAT was the mandate when you were appointed Chair of the WBG/IMF African Society?

The WBG/IMF African society is an organization that represents the African professionals who work in the Breton Woods Institutions. When I was appointed in 1996 to be the chairman, we had some 1800 African professionals in both institutions.

My mandate was to represent the Africans working in the World Bank Group and IMF.  The specific remit for me was to support career progression concerns just as we were all there to serve both institutions. As ambassadors of the continent in the twin institutions, we also use the platform provided by the Society to showcase the uniqueness of our culture.

What necessitated the founding of the society?

When it was set up, it was supposed to be an organization that represents our career interests; however, it turned out to be more of a social organization busy trying to project the African culture and throwing big parties.

Basically, the organization was created to be a true representative of Sub-Saharan African staff away from home in a foreign land working in such big institutions. But during the early years of its formation, its activities were more on the side of projecting the African culture. Subsequent years saw the society reinventing itself rallying around certain issues of career.

It is the course of championing career causes and contributing to enhancing the relationships between the Bank and the Fund and the African-client countries that it morphed into the powerful networking body that it is today.

The WBG/IMF African society has been in existence for over sixty years now. Who were the founding fathers of the society and what were their contributions to the cause?

One of the founding fathers is the current President of Ivory Coast, Alasanne Ouatarra. Alassane became the first Black Deputy MD of the IMF. There was also Calisto Madavo, a Zimbabwean and first World Bank Vice President for the African region.  Well before then, there had been some African staff who invested their time and effort into setting up this voluntary organization.

How would you describe the contributions of these founding fathers?

First, that they initiated the founding of an organization that Africans can call their own in an organization that’s quite dominated by dominant white anglo-saxon male protestant-dominated cultures, which were not very inclusive. It’s very easy to come into the WBG/IMF and feel very lonely and to the extent that some of the African staff saw a need to create an organization that could relate more with them in those institutions. Another important reason for the founding was also to create a platform for interactions and exchange of views on challenges amongst the African staff and the Africa Region.

What do you consider your milestone achievement during your time as Chair of the society?

When I took over in 1996, one of the challenges I faced was how to transform the society from a predominantly socio-cultural organization to an instrument for networking /to galvanize support around some of the major issues that African staff are facing in the World Bank and IMF. I thought we could use the Society not only for career interests in terms of intake into the institutions but also in terms of career progression. I also saw a need to use the Society to enhance the client relationship between the World Bank/IMF with the African countries. That was a major objective of my own tenure.

As of the time that I started my tenure, there were no black staffs in the corporate team of the World Bank—from the Vice President’s level to Managing Director up.

My whole assessment of the situation of why blacks where marginalized in the institutions were not justifiable as I found that African staff were hugely qualified for such roles. The least educational qualification of an African staff in both institutions was Masters’ Degree. Many are PH.D holders in various fields.  When I came in as Chair of the Society, I was committed to challenging a dominant culture that was very exclusive because the reason African staff were recruited into those institutions was basically because they were qualified. And therefore, the questions that I raised was that ‘why did these institutions not create an equal opportunity and a level playing field for our people to use their God-given talent in the services of these global institutions. I forged a relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus and other Lawmakers in Capitol Hill. This linkage gave our organization leverage. The management of the Bank used our organization to mobilize support of our friends in Capitol Hill to carry out some institutional tasks. The point I was trying to make then was that if an equal opportunity and level playing field was created, our people will excel. The odds were against us though, but our relations with Capitol Hill gave us an unprecedented leverage and the World Bank management took notice of and realized that there was a basis for a partnership with our organization. That was a major accomplishment for me. I also organized the first Africa Business Forum hosted by the WB Group and the IMF in November 1998, which was attended by 600 top African Leaders, including a large delegation from Nigeria. The underlying concept was that there was an emerging African entrepreneurial class which,can compete with anyone anywhere if faced with equal opportunity  and a level playing field. Enduring and mutually beneficial business  relationships resulted from this event. I am proud of this legacy.

So it won’t be out of place to say the Society is responsible for the emergence of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as World Bank MD.

With her academic training and professional experience having served in different management and technical positions in the World Bank, she should have been promoted long time ago without our organization  solely on the basis of merit. Ngozi served on the Task Force on Racial Equality which then World  Bank President asked me to set up in 1998. She and I co-authored the Report on Racial Equality which we submitted to the management of the World Bank Group.

Most of oour recommendations were adopted, including a Zero Tolerance Policy against racial  discrimination and bias and an Action Plan for the career advancement of Black staff. Before my tenure, a few studies on race based discrimination in the institution had been undertaken by the World Bank staff association and independent consultants. Because of my close relationship with the then President of the World Bank James Wolfenson, I was empowered to set up the racial equality task force to look into racial equality in the institution and come up with a recommendation for his management to implement in order to take on the issues head-on.

The report outlined specific areas that should be monitored very closely by the world bank management that had been designed to sanitize the employment environment and create opportunities for African staff to move up the ladder. This became an action plan that the World Bank implemented.

At the time you stepped down in 2003, what were the opportunities you created for the new leadership to move to the next level?

To know that it was okay to cry foul, when there were injustices that were committed against them. But for the most part, the tendency was to resign themselves to that status of being victims because they didn’t want to be stigmatized as trouble makers.

I came in and created an environment where Africans could question injustices that marginalized them and that it was okay for them to raise their voices against those injustices. The advances that  were made in racial  diversity and increasing African representation in senior management positions and the African presence in both the WB Group and the  IMF, quantitatively and qualititatively a landmark achievement of my team and I  during my tenure as Chairman of the World Bank Group-IMF African Society(1996-2003). I was blessed to have an opportunity to make the  above-mentioned contributions. Our organization also contributed to the achievement certain institutional objectives in their business with the Africa Region, including PR work at Capitol Hill leading to Board Approval of the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Project; Review of the draft AGOA Bill and making recommendations to make the  draft Bill more Africa-friendly(all adopted as amendments in the final Bill) and facilitating payment of US arrears of $1 billion to IDA 11by mobilizing support of US Lawmakers, etc. etc.

You were also named Chairman Emeritus of the society after your tenure. How does this role differ from the previous?

I think it was a gesture on the part of the African professionals in the World Bank and IMF to say ‘thank you’ to an outgoing chairman who has made a landmark contributions towards WB-IMF relations with the African-client countries and sanitizing the work environment that created an equal opportunity and a level playing field for them to use their God-given talent in the services of the global institutions.

The title of Chairman Emeritus is indeed a fitting gift for expression of their gratitude and I appreciate that I’m the only Chairman Emeritus of the society.

 


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