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Guinea is heading towards presidential elections in mid-October, and at least three friends may be candidates, including one who was prime minister between 2004 and 2006, during my time as resident representative. That led me to think about about how work thrusts you into the midst of leaders past, present, and yet to-be. One good friend, whom I met as a colleague in another multilateral agency in 2003 is now finance minister in Guinea, after spending some of her working years in Jamaica. Doors open and close all over.

I never had any idea what my working life would throw up in the ‘celebrities’ stake; economists are just technocrats, right? I should have had an inkling from my days at the Bank of England when economists with whom I’d worked were next seen as presidents or finance ministers or central bank governors; one even became prime minister 👀. (I’d have taken bets on Theresa May never becoming PM.) None of these outcomes are far off the career path, really.

In many countries, economists are revered in politics much as lawyers are in many developed countries. I did work with Ernesto Zedillo on capital flight from Latin America during the mid-1980s, while he was at Banco de México, and had no idea of his political aspirations or affiliations (President 1994-2000). His predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid (1988-94), was one of the funniest politicians I ever met, and recall well a story he told about being late for his daughter’s wedding because he was playing dominoes.

But, Fund work sends you to the top of the tree all the time, and if you’re easily overawed by trappings of position and power, then it’s likely not going to be a happy place for you. I’m an iconoclast, so treat all people much the same. Yes, I have been abrupt, direct and far from self-effacing when ‘talking to power’ 😉 I don’t jump to my feet when ‘powerful’ people walk into rooms; I don’t cede my place to them, either. As my father used to say, “We all have bottoms.”

But, just crawling through the undergrowth of the past, who’s memorable?

Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi (aka ‘Brother Leader’) was stunning, more because he just showed up midway through a discussion session of central bank governors, all flowing robes, and launched into a long tirade about multilateral financiers, and how we were part of some massive geopolitical problems, then left. The first clearly unhinged political leader I had ever seen up close.

Stretching my mind backwards to my Bank of England days, I was thrilled to rub shoulders with then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, especially as my new graduate banking peers had selected me to give the vote of thanks at a banquet hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London. But, how does one navigate a world where significant figures in your workplace are peers of the realm? But, my kind of person was the governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi, who was the first man on the dance floor and the last to leave 🙂

In country work, it gets to be ‘stock in trade’ to have courtesy meetings with presidents and prime ministers. As a res rep, though, these people can be on the meeting schedules very often. In Guinea, I only met the late president Lansana Conté once. I met his (revolving set of) prime ministers often, though, and visits to La Primature were regular. Conakry is compact when it comes to location of most government offices, so it was no more than a 5 minute spin in the car. Sometimes, I walked.

Some presidents want to show they are in charge and make a big show at the beginning and end of missions, to set the ground clearly and check that their ‘instructions’ had been understood. Azerbaijan was the most notable, there, with former president Heydar Aliyev (father of the current president) making a big final meeting show. His career had involved being head of the security services and he ran an authoritarian (some say ‘police’) state. His son, Ilmar’s, succession tells all [FYI he’d been first vice-president of SOCAR, the state-owned Azeri oil and gas company (the source of most national revenues) when I worked in Baku. :)]

Guyana was interesting because the president (1999-2011), Bharrat Jagdeo, at the time had been the former finance minister (1995-99), with whom we’d gone tooth and nail over budget figures, so he couldn’t help showing his mastery of that and understanding of Fund financial programming.

One of the strangest interactions was with Latvia’s Einars Repše. (He graduated from Latvia State University (now known as University of Latvia) in 1986 with a degree in physics (specialisation – radio electronics). He first entered politics in 1988 as one of the founders of the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK), a political organization promoting Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union. He was elected to the parliament of Latvia in 1990.) From 1991 to 2001, So, he was a seasoned politician when the IMF missions first began working with Latvia. Repše was the president of the Bank of Latvia (Latvia’s central bank). During this period, he oversaw the introduction of the Latvian rublis, Latvia’s temporary transition currency and the Lats, independent Latvia’s new currency. So, my first encounter with him was as central bank president. He was astonishingly frank is stating he understood nothing about monetary policy and just needed to know what numbers to watch. Being a physicist, he learned the arithmetic of monetary analysis fast. He was the most ‘successful’ central banker I have ever met.

He went back into politics and became PM (2002-2004). He founded the New Era Party, a Populist anti-corruption party. After the 2002 elections, Repše became the Prime Minister of Latvia in November 2002. He led a coalition of his own New Era Party, the Latvia’s First Party, the Union of Greens and Farmers and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK. Repše’s government became known for an outspoken fight against corruption and tax evasion. He was finance minister 2009-10 and also defence minister in 2004. He’s described as flamboyant but eccentric seems more fitting, in my mind.

Interestingly, his deputy during my time, Ilmar Rimšēvičs became governor in 2001-19, but more recently (2018) was charged with accepting bribes; the case is pending.

But, here’s the rub in much of this. Status or rank are things that matter more in context. Notions like he who pays the piper calls the tune put status into one context. The Fund, as major financial supporter of economic policy and often with that political power, tends to stand above any individual’s status. If we can’t agree on a program, then start to figure out how and when the reserves are going to get replenished, and from the support that comes from the Fund’s thumbs up, where is the budget going to get what it needs? For many ‘powerful’ people or those who think their status matters, that’s a sobering reality. It rarely gets to the point of ‘your money, your rules’, but it’s often about ‘our money, our rules’ 🙂