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.