Donald Kaberuka, AfDB President 2005-2015 – A perspective on leadership, and a passionate advocate for infrastructure and development soldiering

28/08/2015
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008 was a defining moment for the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) and its 7th elected President, Donald Kaberuka. It was the day the Bank successfully tested its convening power when it set out to engineer consensus on how to respond to the impact of the global financial crisis on the economies of Africa.

On a drab winter day in Tunis, there was a real sense of urgency as delegates, mostly finance ministers, met at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Gammarth, on the outskirts of the Tunisian capital. The visitors were mostly preoccupied with how to shield African financial markets from a crisis that had seemingly come from nowhere. It was heralded by the collapse of US financial giant Lehman Brothers, and by the unprecedented loss of some $10 trillion in market capitalization from global equity markets in October 2008.

The air of uncertainty further escalated when Kaberuka, the chief host, turned up with a bandaged left arm in a sling, following a freak accident. He had to assure the visitors that he was fine, and that the meeting was on course.

As the saying goes, the rest is now history. The Committee of Ten African Ministers of Finance and Central Bank Governors was created to response to the financial crisis. The AfDB also launched robust emergency programmes to soften the impact of the crisis on some of its regional member countries which were affected by the crisis.

Reflecting on the incident recently, Kaberuka said: “It doesn’t matter how well-crafted your strategy is: the fact is that you must also be ready, at all times, to respond to external shocks and crises.

“In my case it was the global financial crisis, so we put out a powerful countercyclical response to that, providing liquidity and trade finance, and picking up projects to contain the damage to the African continent. We increased budget support operations – the biggest of which was a $1.6-billion loan to Botswana, where diamond prices had crashed,” he added.

A number of African countries recovered from the crisis largely due to the Bank’s material and knowledge support, which was delivered on time and in good measure. The Bank’s interventions are also seen to have spurred the phenomenal growth which has been seen on the continent since the Millennium. The AfDB could no longer be ignored on the global development finance landscape.

Nelson Mandela once defined leadership as “taking the frontline in times of danger”, while former US Secretary of State Colin Powell saw leadership in terms of “solving problems.” Kaberuka embodied both of these definitions of leadership during his tenure at the Bank.

He tackled the Ebola crisis which struck Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone last year like an army general. The Bank was quick to provide meaningful support when it mattered most. Kaberuka also took the risk of visiting the affected countries against medical counsel, so that he personally could assess the situation on the ground so that he could take make better informed decisions.

The Bank’s Board of Governors took good note of this intervention in their final communiqué at the 2015 Annual Meetings in Abidjan. “We applaud the Bank Group for its leadership on and quick response to the Ebola hemorrhagic fever epidemic in parts of West Africa, in particular the rapid mobilization of emergency funding to support treatment and containment,” the communiqué said.

Effective leadership has also served the Bank well as it navigated turbulent situations: its relocation to Tunis in 2003, the global financial crisis in 2008, the Arab Spring in 2011, as well as Ebola and numerous conflicts in the regional member countries. In all this, it maintained its triple “A” credit rating, with healthy equity reserves and US $9.7 billion in paid up capital. Besides, the institution doubled its portfolio in a decade, with private sector investments ratcheted up ten-fold from US $20 billion to US $200 billion per annum; and infrastructure projects and programmes reaching US $28 billion, half of which went to the energy sector.

On these, the Governors’ communiqué was also unequivocal: “We commend Dr. Donald Kaberuka for his inspiring and visionary leadership, which has seen the Bank Group become Africa’s premier financial institution. We congratulate Dr. Kaberuka on successfully presiding over a major redirection in the Bank Group’s strategy for development and poverty reduction in the past ten years, by placing increased emphasis on the private sector, and on the importance of major infrastructure developments in areas such as road, railways, power plants and communications, especially in their role in promoting regional integration in Africa.”

The Executive Directors – who represent the 80 member countries of the Bank in overseeing its day-to-day activities – agreed that President Kaberuka worked hard in the past ten years to raise the Bank’s franchise value. They described Kaberuka as one of the most effective leaders the Bank has had, citing its Ten Year Strategy and improved policy dialogue with Member States as some of the emblematic achievements of his period in office.

For his part, former AfDB President Babacar Ndiaye is of the view that Kaberuka, more than any of his predecessors, took the Bank to the “Big league” as a credible African voice on key development issues.

But Kaberuka sees his legacy as a shared one, and dedicates these successes to his “excellent Bank staff”. He has also acknowledged that there were high points and low points in his stewardship. He has assumed his responsibilities, and led from the front.