Exclusive Interview with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: “I’m grateful for the support of Nigerians and the international community.”

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has built quite a remarkable global reputation over the last three decades, and is unarguably one of the most influential and powerful personalities in the world. The last time I met her was in July, a month after the new administration assumed power. She cheerfully said she was ready for a long break and the opportunity to go on a vacation, get some rest and spend some time with her family. But as it appears, the 61- year-old former finance minister has taken a really short vacation and shows no signs of slowing down. Today, she made international headlines based on her new appointments as as Senior Adviser at the global investment shop, Lazard, and as the first African chair-elect of Gavi Alliance.

Immediately following the announcement of her appointments I spoke with  Dr Okonjo-Iweala about her shift to the private sector and her continued commitment to the public sector. She expressed her gratitude to Nigerians and the international community.

Venture Africa (VA): The Gavi Alliance just announced that you are to be the new chair of the board.  What made you accept the role and what do you bring to the table?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (NOI): I think a couple of things. Gavi is one of the most important multinational organisations in the world. I think that Gavi is looking for someone to also bring in some broader economic development knowledge, as well as some financial knowledge. On economic development, it’s becoming clearer, particularly after the Ebola virus scare, that fundamentally, if you do not strengthen the health systems of many of these countries, you can undermine the entire economic development of the country. Immunisation is a platform to that, to set up a stronger health system. Look at what happened in Guinea. The country was growing at about a 6 percent growth rate per annum or even more. I can’t remember the exact growth rate, but it was certainly very high. And the finance minister told us a couple of months ago that their growth rate has fallen to 1 percent per year. That’s a dramatic fall, meaning that the Ebola [virus] severely undermined the growth and the development of the country. So in addition to the human toll that it has, it has an economic toll… I’m trying to work with them to really persuade governments to address the health system, and put money into the healthcare system. It is tantamount to also underpinning your strong and sustainable economic development. I think this is one of the things I will bring to the table

Gavi works in about 73 countries now, and it’s getting to the point where some of these countries will be graduating, about 20 of them, and taking over the payment for their own vaccines. So the the second value add, is that having a [former] finance minister who knows how the budget works, will help them work with each country in a way that will be manageable for the budget of each country.

VA:  You’ve built your career in the public sector, how do you feel about the shift to the private sector?

NOI:  I think the shift to the private sector is very good for me and at the same time good for Lazard in the sense that Lazard is the premier company in the world for sovereign advisory. That’s what I’ll be focusing on, advice to government all over the developing world… We will be helping government in restructuring their finances, in restructuring their debts, in managing their macroeconomic framework. These are areas in which I’ve developed expertise over 33 years of my career, so it will be shifting that knowledge into advising government — though it is from a private sector perspective. But it will also be good because it will bring a different eye and a different methodology to the way that I’ve been working. I will learn, and the company will learn also.

VA: Since the start of your career you’ve been operating at an incredible speed. The last time we met, you did say you were going to take advantage of the break and get some rest. But with these appointments, it seems you are not resting after all?

NOI:  I rested for three months. Or rather, I would say that out of the four months that I’ve been out of office, I was still running around for about three months and I rested for a month.

VA : You accepted two appointments, why didn’t you settle for just one?

NOI: The reason I did it is because like you said, I spent most of my time in the public sector and there’s this part of me that wants to give back in one way or the other  Working with Gavi is a privilege. It will enable me to continue to give back, and then you couple that with the private sector. So I think that public-private thing is perfect to keep me on my toes.

VA: Any parting thoughts?

NOI: I’m very grateful for the support of Nigerians and the international community. I’m excited about the new appointments. Nigerians have supported me by and large and it has been a wonderful feeling. The international community has also shown their support through these appointments, so I’m very grateful. I’m happy. I’m humbled, and I look forward to embarking on the next exciting chapter of my life.

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