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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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