A Leader for Reform
Okonjo-Iweala answers Nigeria’s call to be minister of finance
By Sharron Kahn Luttrell
Ngozi okonjo-iweala, mcp ‘78, PhD ‘81, took a leave from her position at the World Bank in 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 countrywide, 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 United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and President Obasanjo’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 printout,” says Okonjo-Iweala, who returned to Washington, DC, at the project’s completion.
Okonjo-Iweala studied rural Nigerian financial markets as an urban-planning doctoral student at MIT in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the expectation that she would one day return home. 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 time a woman had achieved 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, privatization of state-owned refineries, and the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative to bring openness to the oil sector. For the first time, newspapers publish monthly accountings of federal, state, and local revenues.
Okonjo-Iweala’s economic strategy derives, in part, from 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 University in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, she chose MIT over graduate school at Harvard or the University of California, Berkeley, in part because of its support for international students. The financial-aid office told her that it does everything possible to make sure finances don’t keep students from graduating. International graduate students are always the first to pay back their loans, an officer 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, DC-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,” she says.
Meanwhile, Okonjo-Iweala continues her work in Nigeria. Under her leadership, the country has tripled its monetary reserves from $7 billion to $20 billion. The GDP grew 6 percent last year. Inflation is down from 23 percent to 9.5 percent.
Despite her 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.”
Volunteer Leaders to Gather in September
More than 300 U.S. and international alumni are expected to gather at the Alumni Leadership Conference (ALC) at MIT on September 23 and 24 to connect with fellow volunteers, share successes, and learn new community-building strategies. ALC workshops focus on best practices in events, services, and communication. This year, awards honoring the efforts of outstanding volunteers will be presented at a celebratory dinner Friday night. MIT president Susan Hockfield, Alumni Association president Scott Marks ‘68, SM ‘69, and faculty speakers will share the podium at the Saturday morning plenary session.
Need housing? A block of rooms at the Hotel@MIT has been reserved. To receive the MIT room rate, please sign up by August 27 by calling 617-577-0200 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
To check this year’s schedule, to register, or to learn from the online archive of presentations from the 2004 event, including “A Marketing Insider’s Recipe for a Successful Event,” visit alum.mit.edu/ne/alc/.
Chapters Trade Tips to Expand Offerings
Strategic-planning sessions to discuss future development and share best practices brought together representatives from 17 MIT Enterprise Forums (EF) at the Chapter Leadership Meeting, April 29 to May 1, in Menlo Park, CA.
The annual meeting focuses leaders’ attention on strengthening EF chapters through increased sponsorship, volunteer management and retention, and new programming ideas. Cambridge members described new members-only, industry-specific special-interest groups, and they plan to roll out peer mentoring for senior executives. To encourage young members, the Pittsburgh chapter has secured a Heinz Foundation grant to allow local college students to attend EF programs free of charge.
Puget Sound Hosts Hockfield
More than 200 alumni and friends welcomed President Susan Hockfield to Seattle, WA, on April 21 at a reception sponsored by the MIT Alumni Association, the Club of Puget Sound, and the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest. At one of the largest MIT alumni events ever held in Seattle, Hockfield is joined above by MIT Enterprise Forum volunteers Amy Jessberger and Kirsten Roth and Club of Puget Sound president Mike Koss ‘83. Guests engaged in a lively Q&A session while enjoying spectacular views from the Columbia Tower Club’s 75th floor.
Alumnae Share Experiences at Leadership Conference
Alumnae of all ages mingled with current students at the first MIT Women’s Leadership Conference on April 30. Some 200 women spent the day recounting life experiences and exchanging career advice. The conference theme, “Innovating Success,” suggested the myriad ways MIT alumnae have built successful lives in industry, business, professions, nonprofits, and education. The audience at the “Alumnae through the Eras” plenary, pictured here, responded warmly to the speakers: retired chemical engineer Elisabeth Drake ‘58, cardiologist Debra Judelson ‘73, attorney Wendy Haller ‘88, and Erika Ebbel ‘04, the current Miss Massachusetts, who plans to pursue an MD-PhD. The event was sponsored by the MIT Alumni Association and held at the Hotel@MIT.