Paulo Gomes: Pushing the development agenda 


Paulo Gomes has over 25 years of experience at the highest levels of both the public and private sectors in Africa. He has served in very senior positions in multilateral development institutions, as an Executive Director of the World Bank and on the board of the West African Development Bank. He has also worked with senior government ministers and heads of governments on key projects throughout the continent. Earlier this year he ran for office in his country, Guinea-Bissau. Stephen Williams talked with him. Here are extracts. 

You joined the World Bank at a very young age. What was your role at that institution?

I was in charge of the World Bank in 25 countries in Africa; in West, Central and some Southern and East African countries, covering Mauritius to Madagascar and even Somalia.

My experience there was at a very interesting time as the Bank was just turning the corner in terms of its policy towards Africa. When I joined I was the youngest Deputy ExecutivDirector, the youngest on theboard, and I also became theyoungest Executive Directorsince the creation of the World Bank.

I came in with a strong sense of an agenda to push the African continent’s development forward, and very early on I needed to work on a strategy that would guide me if I was to really influence the World Bank’s policy toward Africa.

What was your approach?

My approach was innovative because the classical Executive Director for Africa would parachute in and then wait for the Bank to more or less come up with the strategy for Africa which he would execute. But I wanted to influence the policies from the get-go, and that was very useful in helping change the mindset of how the World Bank deals with African countries.

I immediately put a big emphasis on the need to bring back the development of infrastructure onto the World Bank agenda because we were basically going with soft policies.

The Bank was insisting on a focus on education and health, which are very important, but infrastructure was becoming almost a dirty word in the Bank. I said that it was simply impossible for us to transform African countries if we do not engage in improving infrastructure.

Why do you think the infrastructure sector had such a bad name?

Personally, I think that before the structural adjustment period, there was a kind of excuse for developed countries to say that unless the macroeconomic balance is right there is no need for Africa to engage and address the infrastructure gap “because they’re not going to be able to maintain it, and blah blah blah”.

The second thing is that I think the developed World didn’t really want to place huge amounts of money to back infrastructure projects in Africa, so there was an excuse that as we were at that time focusing on the agenda of debt relief, and I was also behind pushing that agenda, for many the argument was “you are asking for debt relief and at the same time huge amounts of money for infrastructure, when what needs to be one is to free up money from the debt relief and then apply it to special sectors like infrastructure”.

I said, “No, that is not how things work, it has to be an entire package, and we have to be careful not to increase the burden on the budgets of these countries, but you’re simply not going to have a transformation without investing in infrastructure”.

That was my stance. Another agenda that I really pushed for was agriculture. The Bank was also trying to move back into agriculture. But the response was that there are already organisations and some of the NGOs who can, do assist, there’s no need for the Bank to be that engaged. Again, that was kind of a big mistake.

I remember that at one point, in the entire Africa region of the World Bank, there were only two or three agronomists to deal with all the African countries, so we were not giving agriculture very much attention at all. I was telling people this is the most difficult sector to finance because it’s slow, the most expensive sector to finance is agriculture because the returns take so long to realise. It’s not the same as for industry where  you get back your money so much more quickly.

Was this when James Wolfensohn was the World Bank president?

Yes, this was during Wolfensohn’s era, but it started a little bit prior to him. He was under pressure to keep his eye on the social indicators and he had to really battle hard to get agriculture onto the Bank’s agenda.

I think it was useful to him when I joined in 1998 because I was very vocal in asking for the bank to change its course on Africa, and to prepare a new strategy for Africa.

I organised what we called the Africa Day. I brought in the entire board of the World Bank, and invited key ministers from Africa, such as Donald Kaberuka, who was then Minister of Finance in Rwanda. Other ministers also came to Washington for two days of no-holds-barred brainstorming. It was kind of  useful to come out from that meeting with clear instructions to the Bank to prepare a new strategy for Africa.

Was it always your intention to leave the Bank and go into the private sector, or were you lured away?

It was always my intention to eventually enter the private sector, and when I was leaving the Bank in 2006, I received many proposals to stay, but I had decided to go and set up my

own company. I was very passionate about the need to create a bridge between Africa and Southeast Asia, and I immediately started engaging with Singapore, with Malaysia and that led us to the creation of the first Africa– Southeast Asia business forum. We held the first event in Singapore in 2010, and one of the decisions we made there was to set up the first Africa-Southeast Asia Chamber of Commerce, which is now operational in Singapore.

We did a second forum in 2011 in Kuala Lumpur which was also very, very successful, so now I think we have an ecosystem and I believe that if we continue to do that, it will be very beneficial. We also decided to create the Singapore-Africa Business Forum and we are going to a have a third session in August in Singapore.

I believe strongly that if we continue to push that agenda with Southeast Asia it will help us create our own African champions in several sectors; in agriculture, in logistics, in oil and gas, and this is how we will accelerate the process of regional integration.

You have to create the equivalents of Ecobank, of Asky Airlines and the other giant pan-African companies. I’m very pleased to be part of that process and to keep pushing it forward.

Do you still have ambitions in the political sphere and what would you do differently to the campaign you led before?

I think I underestimated the influence of some of the regional networks and forces outside the country who were not very, I would say, excited to have new  blood in the political system of my country; I was kind of surprised by what I saw, what I witnessed and so I will do much more external homework next time.

I shall approach it in a less naive way, but I think that we showed that it is possible for an independent candidate to do extremely well. I had a couple of political parties who supported me, but we could have done better had we merged those political parties – so that is also something that I learned from the last election.

I was also very strict about the nature of support I was prepared to accept; money is still a big issue in our country’s election campaigns.

Political funding is often considered the Achilles heel of the democratic multiparty election process, but US President Obama seems to have overcome that, in his first election campaign anyway, by taking a lot of small donations from private individuals. Is that possible in a country like Guinea-Bissau?

It is very difficult as Guinea- Bissau is a very small country, we have just 800,000 registered voters. By the way, I had huge support from the Diaspora, the majority of the Diaspora voted for me. But I made a big mistake; although I pushed for the Diaspora to be registered, I should have pushed harder.

I’ll give you an example, we had the potential of 800,0000 registered voters from the Diaspora, these people wanted to register, and the national commission did everything not to really bother with the demand from them, so we ended up only having 20,000 people registered. This was done almost purposely to prevent the Diaspora to vote.

They were denied access to information to know what was going on, and this damaged my campaign as I was the candidate who had the most to benefit from the Diaspora. I got most of the vote from the Diaspora, but

I could have got much more if I had put greater pressure on the Electoral Commission.

What does it take to win an election in Guinea-Bissau? How much money, and what do you spend it on?

I would say, a lot of money, between $3m and $4m. A lot of cash is spent on community support initiatives; unfortunately the electorate has the expectation of receiving cash for many of their requirements – for water, access to housing etc – people basically want help to solve their debts and improve their lives in the run-up to the elections.

But it also requires a significant amount of resources for a party to pay for transportation, the gasoline for cars, to get around the country and campaign. The media is not a big factor yet in Bissau’s election spending.

What sort of influence does radio and TV have in Guinea- Bissau regarding the democratic process?

We have only one TV station, the national TV, and it didn’t play a role during the election, it was a disaster, so we used a lot of social media. I believe I was the most organised candidate in the social media field. The newspapers are not very effective, but community radio does work well, though it is expensive.

Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has proposed that election spending should be limited; in a TED talk she emphasised the point that campaign expenditure should be limited amongst all candidates, that none should have more money than any other. Would you go along with that?

Well, I think that would be ideal! But I wonder how you would legislate? I think our parliament would be against that. But I do think that if we don’t put in place a system for campaign finance, it will destroy our democracy.

Why do you think that you lost the election?

I think, first of all, that I did not have the army chief of staff’s support. Although he had nothing against me, I would say that he was motivated by the ethnic situation because the candidate he supported came from his own ethnic group. Secondly, I believe that there was a network of individuals in the region who worked against my candidature.

What was the ethnic group that the army chief came from? And which grouping do you hail from?

He was from the Balanta group, and I come from a very small ethnic group, the Manjako.

These elections took a long time to organise, and it has been a bumpy road for Guinea- Bissau. What do you see for your country’s future?

I am optimistic. I believe that it was important to go through this process of elections. We now have a president and a prime minister – a young prime minister who is a very smart and very engaged person.

He asked me to join his cabinet as the minister of finance, but I decided against that because I think that I should continue to be engaged at the grassroots level with the people who voted for me and the promises I made them to help them, and also to be involved at citizen level to empower the youth and women.

I will consult with and offer my advice to the prime minister if he asks for it. But I’m optimistic that my country now will move forward. I didn’t win the elections but I believe that it’s important for all of us now to engage in helping this process to be successful.

Each country has its own history and traditions, and our country came from a liberation movement. We may have made mistakes, for instance we did not mobilise our people after the liberation.

We need to think of ways to reform our systems and some of the rules of the game of political parties. But certainly, I don’t think that a one-party system in our country will do the trick. I think we will turn the corner and it’s important for the international media to keep an eye on the country – it has huge potential in West Africa.


Source: New African Magazine


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