Former Nigerian Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was in 2007 appointed the World bank Managing Director.
Okonjo-Iweala joined two other managing directors, two executive vice-presidents and the Chief Financial Officer at the top level of World Bank Group management. This position has her overseeing the bank’s activities in Europe, Africa, South and Central Asia.
Watch Ngozi at the TED talks 2006
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala initially worked for the World Bank and took a leave from her position 2000 to return to her native Nigeria. She was answering a call from Olusegun Obasanjo, the country's first democratically elected leader in 15 years, to help end corruption and fix the country's troubled economic system. The oil-rich nation was tens of billions of dollars in debt but officials didn't know exactly how much was owed or what had been paid to international lenders.
- "The president told me his dream was that one day he would ask, 'How much do we owe and what did we last pay?' And someone would push a button and it would be printed out," Okonjo-Iweala recalled. At the time the nation's debt records were scattered among seven offices country-wide, some on paper, some in computers. The disconnected system was just one of many barriers to economic stability for a country currently $35 billion in debt.
To solve the problem, Okonjo-Iweala worked with the British Department for International Development and the president's team to create a national debt management office featuring a centralized database of the country's debt accounts. "By the time I left six months later, he had his dream. Now, you literally just push a button and you get a print out," says Okonjo-Iweala, who then returned to Washington D.C.
Okonjo-Iweala studied rural Nigerian financial markets as an MIT doctoral student in the late 1970s and early '80s, with the expectation that she would one day return. She started her career at the World Bank, accumulating experience in East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Two years ago, the World Bank promoted her to vice president and corporate secretary, the first woman to achieve these positions. Soon, however, Obasanjo asked her to come back to Nigeria, this time as the minister of finance. The decision to accept was not an easy one. "I was in a bit of a shock," she says. "I really loved what I was doing, but when I was asked to come, how could I not go?"
Okonjo-Iweala heads a team of 13 ministers who have launched a series of economic and social reforms including a zero-tolerance policy for corruption; international and local governmental contract bidding; privatizing state-owned refineries; and the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, which aims to bring openness to the oil sector. And, for the first time, newspapers publish monthly accountings of federal, state, and local revenues.
Okonjo-Iweala's economic strategy relies, in part, on her MIT research into Nigeria's formal and informal financial markets. She hopes to link aspects of the informal lending system, which is successful because it allows people to access money quickly, to a more formal system.
When Okonjo-Iweala graduated from Harvard in1976 with a bachelor's degree in economics, she chose MIT over graduate school at Harvard or Berkeley in part because of support for international students. The financial aid office told her that they do everything possible to make sure finances don't keep students from graduating. International graduate students are always the first to pay back their loans, they told her.
"I ended up taking a loan for a semester and, because of what they said, I was determined that I would be like other graduate students. When I got my first job as a young professional at the bank, I used the advance to pay the MIT loan. Basically we didn't have furniture for three months," she remembers.
Okonjo-Iweala, who has four children ages 17 through 23 and a husband who is a Washington D.C.-based surgeon, recently met with Paul Wolfowitz, the new president of the World Bank. She was encouraged by the meeting. "I think he's going to keep Africa as a front runner."
In the meantime, Okonjo-Iweala continues her work in Nigeria. Under her leadership, the country has tripled its reserves from $7 billion to $20 billion. The GDP grew at 6 percent last year. Inflation is down from 23 percent to 9.5 percent.
Despite the success, Okonjo-Iweala was surprised last October when Time magazine named her a Hero of the Year. "It was completely, completely out of the blue," she said. "I'm not even a subscriber to Time magazine. We normally buy Newsweek."