Cristina Duarte: The lady with a mission and the vision

Her tenure as Minister of Finance of Cabo Verde has been highly successful in terms of riding the global economic crisis and diversifying the economy. Many feel her competences make her an ideal candidate for the presidency of the AfDB.  African Business profiles her.    Cristina Duarte has a mission. The Minister of Finance of […]


Her tenure as Minister of Finance of Cabo Verde has been
highly successful in terms of riding the global economic crisis and diversifying the economy. Many feel her competences make her an ideal candidate for the presidency of the AfDB.  African Business profiles her.   

Cristina Duarte has a mission. The Minister of Finance of Cabo Verde personifies all the elegance and charm that the Cabo Verde island’s women are renowned for, but she has an air of seriousness about her, a clear determination and focus. She is impatient to get things done, but not at any cost.

Her instincts are to get results, be tough if need be, but to do things with a conscience, always aware and careful in her approach. She is blessed with both a high IQ and that rarity amongst people of authority, emotional intelligence. She is attentive and listens, which is not always a given for someone with her type of track record.

Duarte has been minister of finance of Cabo Verde for 10 years now. Alongside Mauritius and Botswana, Cabo Verde is an African poster child, in terms of what the country has managed to achieve, without fuss or ceremony, over a short space of time. Duarte can be credited with much of that success but it has not all been plain sailing.

The fact is that the country is heavily exposed to Europe: 90% of exports go to the Eurozone, some 60% of remittances come from the region and most of the foreign direct investment still originates from the Eurozone. Most of the tourist flows come from Europe. These factors meant that the financial crisis was a stern test for this small country of half a million people, but one they have passed with flying colours.

The current president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Donald Kaberuka, often cites Cabo Verde as an example of macroeconomic prudence and good governance. Mo Ibrahim, whose foundation publishes an annual governance index and gives the Prize for Achievement in African Leadership is full of praise for the country, for the way it conducts itself and the way it is led. Its former president, Pedro Pires, who stepped down in 2011, won the Ibrahim Prize that year.

Following the 2008 economic crisis, the country has gone on to diversify its partnerships, and Duarte emphasises the urgent need to lessen the country’s exposure to Europe. The focus for her is primarily on African ‘inward’ investment.

In the past two years, Cabo Verdean diplomacy has worked hard to strengthen its partnerships with fellow African countries. Duarte herself has put the case for Cabo Verde forward across the continent. She was one of the keynote speakers at the Africa Finance Corporation Infrastructure Summit, an organisation her country had just joined. The AFC have one of their flagship projects in Cabo Verde, the Cabeolica wind farm projects. The country, a grouping of islands, has much to lose from climate change and today 25% of its total energy needs are met by green energy.

She has been raising her profile with a specific task in mind – to promote the country and attract African investment so as to considerably reduce reliance and exposure to European economies.

“For Cabo Verde, our priority is essentially to drive African direct investment. And we are doing so by targeting some key partners who we can work with. We have invested in the past 10 years in seven maritime ports and four international airports. This is to be able to access our country and conversely access the world.” World-wide connectivity has also been developed. “Cabo Verde is now a wifi country,” Duarte says with pride. “The whole country is covered with WIMAX: go to any municipal square and you will get free internet access. Anyone can just access the internet, meaning a complete access to information, and access to knowledge.” 

She adds: “We have created a competitive fiscal regime. If you decide as an African employer to set up a company in Cabo Verde, not for its 500,000 inhabitants but to do business with West Africa, your corporate taxes are 2.5%. You pay nothing in terms of import duties, you pay nothing in terms of export duties, and if you manage to incorporate at least 40% of the company’s value in Cabo Verde your product can be recognised as an ECOWAS product and being an ECOWAS product it can be exported from Cabo Verde to any of the other 14 ECOWAS countries, free of all customs duties.

“Since the beginning we have paid attention to physical infrastructure but also to [building strong] institutions. Our slogan is at the end of the day ‘institutions matter’.  We have an open regulatory framework, a strong legal system and a well established and functioning democratic system. Today our president and head of state is from one party, the prime minister’s government from another, and the local authorities from another and we are peaceful.”

Duarte has been central to her country’s achievements. She is clearly a woman with a purpose, who would not look out of place on Wall Street or on the board of a Fortune 500 company. Her education and ambition would have surely led her there, had she not returned home to serve in government. With an economics degree from the University of Lisbon and an MBA from Thunderbird in Phoenix, Arizona in the USA, Duarte is confident, but in no way brash or arrogant. There is a sense of humility with her leadership, but this should not be confused with weakness or a lack of authority.

Colleagues within the ministry of finance refer to her as a “doer”, and as a hard taskmaster who will not tolerate inefficiency. She has worked at Citibank where she was head of Investment and Corporate Banking, and has also headed the World Bank’s private sector programme in her country before assuming her current position. She is equally at ease in her mother tongue, Caboverdiana, as she is in Portuguese, French, Italian or English. Duarte is careful not to define her candidature for the AfDB’s presidency in terms of gender. For her it is not her main attribute and she wants to be considered for her competences, not her sex. But she does believe that women have something different to offer, which could be very advantageous for a developmental organisation like the AfDB: “I believe that we women are more open to a balanced, stronger leadership because of our nature and maternal instincts. We are more prone to look to the future, to focus on the next generation. In that respect we are more forward looking and altruistic in our approach and leadership style.”

She describes her style as consensual but without ever absolving herself of her responsibilities or her authority being in doubt: “I’m very friendly with my team but at the same time they recognise my leadership, they know who is in charge at the ministry of finance. There is no ambiguity. Yet I’m a strong team player.”

She is also comfortable delegating and empowering her staff, one of the reasons she says she refused to have a Secretary of State: “I have no problems giving power. On the one hand I give it but believe me, on the other hand I will be demanding and will ensure that my team is accountable for every target, every goal.”

Delivery is key and Duarte is undoubtedly an experienced and very capable candidate for the AfDB’s leadership, able to bring a new approach to the institution. She is aware she will face a tough battle ahead. “One thing I can’t control is the politics”, she says as she excuses herself and confidently walks to her next meeting. Whatever the outcome, Duarte will continue to play an important role in the continent’s forward march to prosperity. As someone who knows her well said, “she is not arrogant; she is somebody who delivers”.

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