Knighted by her country for her service in building Liberia’s financial institutions and international credibility from the ground up following a destructive civil war, Antoinette M. Sayeh, who joined the IMF in 2008, has turned her energy and enthusiasm to leading the African Department at a critical time for the Fund and for the nations of Africa.
Antoinette Sayeh’s backstory: born in Liberia, educated in Liberia, Switzerland, and the United States, she spent most of her professional career at the World Bank because—among other things—a devastating civil war in her native country precluded working back home. A DC-based career as an economist at the World Bank followed.
The lengthy war in Liberia ended in 2003. A landmark 2005 election put the first democratically elected female head-of-state in Africa in charge of the fractured country. As President Sirleaf considered the massive challenge to rebuild a ravaged national psyche and a destroyed economy—broken roads, no electricity, little government or private sector capacity and a crushing $3.7 billion debt—she turned to Sayeh.
Today, Sayeh says it was a move she had to make. “You cannot pass up an opportunity like this, to make a true difference in the future of your country,” she explains.
In a whirlwind two-and-a-half years on the job, Ms. Sayeh oversaw a series of reforms that have set her still-fragile country on a stronger path. Among her successes: significant revenue expansion and progress on expenditure management, adherence to a balanced cash-based budget and economic governance reforms. Perhaps most significant: she spearheaded the drive toward clearance of Liberia’s protracted arrears to the IMF, World Bank and the African Development Bank, as well as the restructuring of the nation’s bilateral debt, making it possible for the country to access much needed new external sources of finance—including a PRGF facility from the IMF.
Hitting the ground running
Ms. Sayeh says that her position as director of the IMF’s African department represents a new chapter and a new professional challenge—one which she also couldn’t pass up. This is a unique moment in the history of the IMF as it seeks to rachet up its work with low-income countries, and she is eager to be part of the effort.
In her first weeks on the job back in 2008, Ms. Sayeh had to deal with the spike in the cost of food and energy, a crisis that threatened to derail the progress of Africa’s emerging market nations, and to further de-stabilize Africa’s poorest countries.
"My immediate priority, during my first weeks here, and to this day, was to make sure we do all we can to help countries respond to whatever crisis that they face," Ms. Sayeh says. The Fund can play an important role, through policy advice and financial support, she notes.
Beyond the immediate pressure of helping countries address the fallout from the current global economic recession, Ms. Sayeh has led her department as the IMF has taken a broader look at its financial instruments, a number of which have ungone changes in recent months to better meet the needs of low-income countries.
One-size-fits-all won’t work
African member nations have varying needs, according to Ms. Sayeh, who had worked on Africa issues among others at the World Bank prior to her position as Liberia’s Finance Minister.
Some countries, like Tanzania, have moved beyond their Heavily Indebted Poor Country status with strong macroeconomic progress and an ability to access private capital markets. Such nations may put a premium on the world class advice the IMF can offer as their own finances grow more complex. Post-conflict nations, like Liberia, will still require debt relief and assistance with basic financial management—a different type of response that might involve both technical assistance and financial support.
She also notes that an on-the-ground presence, in the form of the Resident Representative, is critical to the Fund’s future success in the region, and can have a significant impact on the Fund’s image.
"We need to think carefully about whom we are putting in these countries, and how we empower them," she says. "I plan to put a premium on the nature of our on-the-ground presence."
Like the IMF itself, the IMF’s image in Africa is in transition. "Ultimately, the IMF’s image in Africa will depend on how effective we are in supporting countries as they make progress, and in engaging with the broader society," Ms. Sayeh says.
Specifically, the IMF should rely more on its capacity-building skill sets to help build institutions in public financial management. "As an outsider, I was very impressed with the capacity building support and technical assistance we received from the IMF," she notes. "We can be more strategic about this however, and the work must be owned and led by the countries themselves."
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