Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Epitomizes Brain Circulation

by | Mar 6, 2021 | Jobs

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So what was her journey, and what stands in the way of Africa producing more Dr. Okonjo-Iwealas?

This past month, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was confirmed as the Director General of the World Trade Organization. Across social media, excitement erupted about the significance of her position. Hashtags on twitter included #BeLikeNgozi, #BeLikeNgoziChallenge, and #JustLikeNgozi where women and their daughters joined an #AnkaraArmy in a manner that somewhat recalled Hilary Clinton’s #PantsuitNation. Many of the posts included inspirational messages about how her footprint would have many Africans in general and women in particular follow. Okonjo-Iweala herself weighed in, thanking the people for their support. Here are two of my favorites:

Be Like Ngozi

Be Like Ngozi


So what was her journey, and what stands in the way of Africa producing more Dr. Okonjo-Iwealas?

Every outlet you read emphasizes her global credentials. They stress the fact that she is Harvard-educated, and obtained her PhD in economics from MIT. They praise her long career at the World Bank, where she worked for over two decades, before moving to the Nigerian government. And after that was part of Africa’s global human capital, including chairing GAVI, the global vaccine alliance. When Covid-19 hit, she was part of a small group of Special Envoy of the African Union (AU) on Covid-19, calling for African debt relief.

Indeed, a quick look at the other AU Envoys who were part of the same herculean efforts as NOI on behalf of the continent reveals people with globe-spanning educations and careers. Donald Kaberuka, the former president of the African Development Bank, studied in Scotland; Tidjane Thiam, ex-CEO of Credit Suisse, studied in Paris, and Mr Trevor Manuel, ex-minister of finance of South Africa, includes in his bio the fact that he has “ completed the Executive Management Programme – a joint programme between Stanford University and the National University of Singapore.” Because in global leadership, a world class education matters.

Yet too often the pathway Dr. Okonjo-Iweala blazed is blithely condescended as “brain drain.” Africa gained because NOI spent her 20s in Boston and Washington DC. The continent continued to gain as she brought her lived experience (and Ankara!) to global decision making rooms. And Africa is gaining again as she steps in to steer a global trade institution in the midst of a global pandemic. She is at the helm of the WTO, an organization tasked with contributing to global recovery at a time when trade barriers, including vaccine nationalism and restrictions health commodity supply chains are on the rise.

At 8B, we know many students like the young Dr Okonjo-Iweala. They have a high grit quotient; they overcome inordinate challenges to apply to and receive offers from the global universities of their dreams. They face resistance to their ambitions in the form of reduced access to funding or pressures to keep their talents in the home countries. They make a ritual of deferring/reapplying year after year until they have the money; which is the key barrier to enrollment.

Early in Covid I was saying that we need more brain circulation because every country needs their own Anthony Fauci to manage the pandemic. What I really should be saying is that in every sector, Africa needs leaders who know the global rules of the game; have the confidence and perspectives to use those rules to shape national trajectories; and belong to rich international networks through which they can mobilize knowledge, opinion and capital to define and solve their problems.

What’s more, the solutions we need for 21st Century challenges will need our best collective human efforts, and must include the under-tapped potential on the African continent. African students must access the excellence built in global universities over centuries, even as we start and continue our own home-built journeys to build future world class universities. That means more, not less, mobility for Africa’s ambitious students, that means more future Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealas empowered to stride elite global institutions.

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