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close this bookThe Courier N 184 - Jan - Feb 2001 - Dossier: Press and Democracy - Country Reports: St Kitts and Nevis (EC Courier, 2001, 96 p.)
close this folderFace to face with....
View the documentMamphela Ramphele, new Managing Director of the World Bank
View the documentMichael Maina, Solomon Islands Minister for National Planning and Human Resource Development
View the documentMaps of EU and ACP countries

Mamphela Ramphele, new Managing Director of the World Bank

An interview with the new Managing Director of the World Bank on her first visit to Brussels

“There has to be life after poverty”

Mamphela Ramphele became Managing Director of the World Bank in May this year. Awash with degrees and qualifications (B. Med, PhD in Social Anthropology, BCom in Administration, diplomas in Tropical Health and Hygiene and Public Health), she refreshes the corridors of the establishment. She began her career in the 1970s as a student activist in the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, and her activities led her to being banished from 1977 to 1984 to the remote township of Lenyenye near Tzaneen. Even here she refused to keep quiet - she established the Ithuseng Community Health Programme.

Her transition from activist to pillar of the international community amuses her, but she is not intimidated by it. I wonder if she is intimidated by anything. She is not tall, but her personality is considerable. She has opinions and voices them, her feelings are strong, her laugh loud and clear. It rang out when I asked her what part of her job she was really really excited about.

“I would have been out in the streets of Prague in the Sixties. I was a community health activist, struggling like hell to get donors to believe that these dreams could be made real. I became semi-part of the establishment when I moved to the University of Cape Town and sat on the Board of the Independent Development Trust.” (She was the first black woman Vice Chancellor in what she says was a 19th-century white male college when she arrived, and is now a real South African University). “The government gave us 2 billion Rand and for the first time I was faced with the problem of how to disburse money”.

“That's a huge area which we haven't really thought about. How do we build the capacity of poor people to absorb the help they need?”

She is quite clear that “if the Bank had not changed the way it has changed over the past five or six years, I wouldn't have touched it with a barge pole. But it has come to a point we hoped it would reach, at least conceptually - the commitment to comprehensive development. Understanding that countries should be in the driving seat, bringing in the private sector, not just government. But have we arrived in terms of day-to-day practice? NO! You can change structure, you can change policies, but to change behaviour means changing vision and institutional culture - that takes much longer.”

Working with the EU

She came to see Commissioner Nielson in September, her first visit to Brussels - which she calls “in itself a major statement.” She calls herself the New Girl on the Block and is at pains to spread the word that the Bank is keen to forge relationships and strengthen partnerships with other development agencies. She says she is listening, and that she welcomed Nielson's “constructive criticisms” of the Bank and also his comments on their comparative strengths. Both want to work together towards the development goals that have been drawn up at meetings such as the Copenhagen Social Summit, and the Millennium Summit in New York.

“But it's all very well making commitments. Now we have to draw up action plans. The use of poverty-reduction strategies. Loan assistance complemented by donor support, particularly on the issue of debt relief.”

Both Nielson and Ramphele embrace the long term view - five year cycles, so that countries can learn how to become properly consultative.

“It takes a long time for countries to get their act together, to get up to speed, and start on the path to prosperity. There has to be life after poverty, otherwise I shouldn't be in this business! It is very encouraging that the Commission wants to work in concert with us. The Commissioner wants to mainstream the work of the Commission, so that we are all partners in country assistance and poverty reduction strategy.”


She is in the business up to her neck and proud of it. For her, the challenge is for big aid organisations to catch up with community-based players.

“The cost of consultation with communities has to be built in, not as an expense item but as an investment item. We must build the capacity to share knowledge. This is beginning. Lots of NGOs have been doing this as a matter of course. We must make them confident that their voices are important.”

She describes her vision of the future, almost breathlessly.

For her, it is vital to build the capacity of poor people to participate in consultation, and she envisages a time when these people are effective as citizens, able to negotiate and hold government accountable.

“I ask 'why are you doing it that way?' and say 'have you thought of doing it this way?' The views of an outsider can be useful. Corning into a smoke-filled room it is always easier for you to open the window!”

Her conversation is peppered with words like exciting, wonderful, amazing. She calls her new job an “absolute learning opportunity...every day I'm learning. It's an explosion!” She loves the diversity of the people at the Bank - more than 140 countries are represented, and she revels in the “concentration of intellectual resources,” revealing the Vice Chancellor in her. “PhDs aren't everything, but they count for something!”

During the four months she has been at the Bank, she says she has been asking stupid questions to make people reconsider how they approach issues.

“I ask 'why are you doing it that way?' and say 'have you thought of doing it this way?' The views of an outsider can be useful. Coming into a smoke-filled room, it is always easier for you to open the window!”

Her excitement is not rose-tinted however. She admits there hasn't been effective communication:

“There is a gap between what we are doing and what people perceive us to be doing, and this has to be closed. Not by PR but by listening to criticism and communicating better. There has to be better communication with the NGO sector - we are committed to the same things and we could do better.”

It doesn't seem as though she will let the grass grow under her feet, although working in the bureaucracy of an enormous aid agency will undoubtedly slow her down. The spirit is willing, nevertheless. She supports what she calls “the vision of Jim Wolfenson” and wants to work “to turn it into a programme of action which really makes a difference on the ground and which begins to reflect the way we do business.”

It looks as though a lot of that business is going to be done in collaboration with the European Commission. If her energy and commitment is anything to go by, we shall be seeing results sooner rather than later.

She wants the work of the Commission and the World Bank to be “productive and meaningful - especially in human development, education for all, HIV/AIDS,” and directed towards the goal of halving poverty by 2015.

“We can make it happen!” she cries, and her conviction makes you believe her.

Sylvia Howe

Mamphela Ramphele wants to work for “a programme of action which really makes a difference on the ground”

Below, her colleague James D. Wolfenson, World Bank President, at work in Mali