Dr. Vera Songwe announced her resignation as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) at a virtual town meeting for ECA employees and partners on Monday.
A source who wished to remain anonymous told African Business that the Cameroonian economist is moving on to an organisation where she will be able to focus on Africa and still have significant impact, with an announcement expected in September.
In an editorial published on Monday, Songwe saluted the UN for helping to broker a deal between Russia and Ukraine to unblock grain exports from Black Sea ports and ease an international food crisis in July.
“Less than three weeks after the signing, wheat and cereal prices were back to pre-war levels, delivering huge relief to governments around the world and their populations. The United Nations provided the only olive branch to date in this war. The ECA team is proud to have been part of the solution,” she wrote in a guest column on allAfrica.com.
During her five year tenure at the continent’s premier economic think tank, Songwe has presided over issues ranging from the shake-up of the global financial architecture, to battling the fallout of the pandemic and climate change in one of the world’s worst hit regions.
When the war in Ukraine ripped open the scars of the pandemic in African economies by putting historic pressure on food, fuel and fertiliser prices, the UN swooped in to protect six million people who risked spiralling into poverty, she says.
“Most governments had run out of fiscal buffers for subsidies. I was privileged to be part of a five-person team working under the leadership of United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to help find a solution to the problem,” she wrote in her allAfrica editorial.
Role in the vaccine race
When the continent jostled for jabs amid a global vaccine race, UNECA worked alongside South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the African Union, the Africa Center for Disease Control and the Afreximbank to secure the first shipment of vaccines for African countries.
“We set up the African Medical Supplies Platform and, later, the African Vaccines Acquisition Team – building institutions for Africa’s future and economic autonomy,” she wrote.
Under her tutelage, UNECA has also been instrumental in building the continent’s capacity to source, manufacture and trade vaccines.
“The ECA team proposed a protocol adopted by the African heads of state and government which requires that 30 percent of all procurements by global health agencies are sourced from Africa. This is a crucial take-off condition if vaccines and other health products are to be sustainably manufactured on the continent,” she said.
At the latest conference for African finance ministers in June, UNECA and its partners successfully lobbied for $33.7bn in IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) for Africa as well as a G20 endorsed liquidity plan – the Debt Service Suspension Initiative – which delivered an additional $13bn of liquidity for the continent’s Covid-ravaged economies.
The Hancock affair
But Songwe’s decision to appoint the UK’s former health secretary, Matt Hancock, as an unpaid special envoy for UNECA proved highly controversial given his lack of experience with African economies, debate over the effectiveness of the UK’s pandemic response, and his high profile resignation from the UK government following an affair with a colleague.
The October 12 appointment was quickly withdrawn, with Hancock citing the inability of sitting members of parliament to serve as UN special representatives.
In a joint letter, African academics and aid workers said the debacle “was beyond parody” and damaged UNECA and Songwe’s credibility.
“To appoint Mr. Hancock was disgraceful to and disdainful of all Africans. The appointment was a grave error of judgement by Ms. Vera Songwe and the rescinding of the appointment is a severe rebuke to her.”
Prior to joining the UN agency, Songwe served as regional director for West and Central Africa for the International Finance Corporation, and country director for Senegal, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Mauritania at the World Bank.
She also served as lead economist at the World Bank and as advisor to the Bank’s managing director, former Nigerian finance minister and current head of the World Trade Organization Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.