Can Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala break America’s hold on the World Bank?

The first time Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala ever had to convince Barack Obama of anything was back in 2005.

At the time, Obama was an ambitious young senator from Illinois with a keen interest in foreign affairs. Okonjo-Iweala was Nigeria’s blunt-speaking finance minister, traversing the globe to convince the world’s wealthiest nations that they should ease her country’s debt burden.

“Everybody was saying that this could never be done . . . that it would never happen,” Okonjo-Iweala recounted at an April event in Washington. “We went up to the Hill and there was a certain senator, Barack Obama” — long deadpan pause — “who was among those who were skeptical.”

Eventually, Obama — and the rest of the world — would agree with her. Nigeria paid $12 billion up front to win a further $18 billion in debt relief, and while questions still linger about how good a deal Nigeria got, it removed a major obstacle to the country’s economic growth. She cites the episode as an example of her “persuasive powers.”

Seven years later, that young senator is president, and Okonjo-Iweala, now 57, is using her powers on an even more far-fetched idea. She’s making a bid to lead the World Bank, which last year loaned $57 billion to help poor countries develop. But by tradition, the presidency has always gone to the U.S. nominee, and Obama has made his pick: Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim. As the bank’s board of directors prepares to make a final decision next week, it’s clear that selecting a woman from Africa would be unprecedented.

Yet Okonjo-Iweala hasn’t relented. She insists that she is, by far, the most qualified candidate, having worked at the World Bank for decades, including a stint as its second in command. She has adoring fans — there’s a #TeamNgozi Twitter hashtag — and has garnered support from opinion leaders such as the editors of the Economist and PIMCO head Mohamed El-Erian. The New York Times editorial board, which has called for a more open selection process, urged the World Bank’s board to “take a serious look” at Okonjo-Iweala.

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