A conversation with... Sandie Okoro

Monday 22 November 2021

Sandie Okoro has been the Senior Vice-President and General Counsel of the World Bank since 2016, following positions at Schroders, Barings and HSBC. At the IBA’s Global Showcase event in October, she spoke to Baroness Helena Kennedy, Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, about law, diversity and inclusion, the evolving role of general counsel and the mission of the World Bank.

Helena Kennedy (HK): I want you to tell people a little bit about yourself and how you came into law. You didn’t come from a background in which the law had figured.

Sandie Okoro (SO): My father came from Nigeria and my mum came from Trinidad. They met [in London] and I grew up in Balham, south London. It was a different era when I was born [in 1964] and there were different expectations for young girls, and for young girls from ethnic minorities as well.

I was about seven years old and in my primary school class, the teacher was asking everybody what they wanted to be, and I couldn’t wait to say what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I want to be a judge’.

The teacher turned round to me and said, ‘little Black girls from Balham don’t become judges’. And I was a bit appalled, but at the same time, a little bit stubborn, thinking, well, if they don’t, they’re going to now! That really cemented it. I thought, I am going to do this. No one is going to tell me I’m not going to do this and I’m going to prove you wrong.

Sometimes people say, ‘what would you say to that teacher if you ever saw them again?’ And I would say, ‘thank you for giving me something to work towards that you thought wouldn’t happen’. Now I’m not a judge, but I am Senior Vice-President and General Counsel (GC) of the World Bank Group. And if I’d said, ‘okay, I’ll do that instead’, I don’t think she would have said ‘that’s more realistic’!

And so I held on to that ambition. At [my next school], they really encouraged me, saying ‘if that’s what you want to do, you do it. Do not think the world has limitations for you.’

I also went on lots of anti-apartheid marches. I wanted to promote human rights. That was a time when there wasn’t a lot of that around in the world in the same way that it is now.

I became very much aware of my surroundings and that apartheid in South Africa existed. And I saw the way lawyers played an important role. And of course, Nelson Mandela was a lawyer, and that’s what I wanted to be – one of those lawyers that changes the world and makes a difference.

I wanted to be one of those lawyers that changes the world and makes a difference

So I just worked hard and I went to university in Birmingham and then went on to qualify as a barrister, then changed over to become a solicitor. And that of itself was interesting. I couldn’t afford to stay at the Bar, because at that point you had to be self-sufficient.

And then the Big Bang [the London stock market deregulation of 1986] happened in the City and there was suddenly more space for lawyers. And I thought, ‘why don’t I give that a go?’ That’s another glass ceiling where people say ‘someone like you cannot work in the City’. People were saying, ‘oh no, you need to change your surname, it’s too ethnic-sounding, that won’t work in the City’. And I refused to do that, and it turned out that wasn’t true either. I got opportunities and roles there.

HK: How was it when you moved into finance? Where did you go?

SO: My first move in that direction was to Schroders [an investment management company]. I was only 25 – this young Black girl in a very traditional white, male environment, managing a small trust department there!

Being an in-house lawyer was not very popular at that time. It [was viewed as] where people who couldn’t ‘make it’ went. But there was an opportunity and I took it and I loved it. The City really, really worked for me. I loved having to think on my feet. I loved the challenges. I could deal with sexism. To be honest, there wasn’t as much of it as you would think, and there certainly wasn’t as much racism as you would think. I realise now when I look back, just how traditional it actually was; how unusual I was.

In finance, particularly, even to this day, you don’t have as many female economists as you have male economists and so the view of the world can be very male. And in this specialisation I was in, asset management, there were even fewer women and ethnic minorities, and that still is the case and that really does need to change.

It was a little bit intimidating, particularly when you’re in a very traditional environment and you have men who are older than you who have to report to you. But it worked out very well because you were all learning as you went along. And that’s one thing I would say, if you are willing to learn and you are willing to pick up all these new skills, you can do it.

HK: I want to ask you about diversity and inclusion. I just wondered about your experience of that going through your sector.

SO: I think we don’t have enough [women and people from ethnic minorities] at this moment in time. There’s still a way to go. But what we have done so far has made such a difference, not just in the outcomes for customers and clients and your society, but it’s made a difference, I think, to the world as a whole – workplace, communities, everything else like that. You have to reflect [diversity] in your staff, otherwise you will miss opportunities. You won’t understand what it is your customers want. You won’t understand the change in the world. And you also need a lot of young people as well too, so it’s diversity of age as well. And I think this is just so important. We would not have made as much advancement as we have in making the workplace safer for women if we didn’t have women in powerful positions in the workplace. But we’re not there yet, there’s still a lot to do.

HK: There’s the old argument about whether women do anything any differently, or do they go in there and just do it in exactly the same way as the men, especially if they’ve been trained to practise law in a particular way. Does it make a difference?

You can’t take any shortcuts as a woman. And then if you are a Black woman, the expectation is of failure, not of success

SO: I think we do. And I think different women bring different things as well – in the same way different men bring different things. As women, we bring that experience to the table of the fact that it isn’t easy to get there. It still isn’t easy to get there. And that is a really important experience because you have to make sure you do everything right. You can’t take any shortcuts as a woman. And then if you are a Black woman, the expectation is of failure, not of success. You don’t walk into the room and [they think] ‘we’re really lucky now, we’re going to make it’, they think, ‘oh, OK, let’s see’. So that means actually, you’re really smart and you’re really clued up as to what’s going on.

The other thing I would say that I’ve noticed in many spheres is that women are really good at risk assessments. Our whole life is about risk assessments, from when we were very, very young children and we started to go out on our own as girls, you are taught that the world is not a safe place, how to look after yourself, and that has meant our risk assessment has been very heightened.

HK: How do you change institutions which have existed for such a long time, that have practices and ways of being that are very set in stone?

SO: The first thing is that there has to be a willingness to change. And there has to be a willingness to want to survive the next ten years, to be honest, because I think there’s a lot of change coming. One of the things I see with many traditional institutions is the inability to look forward – what is the world going to be like in 2050? You can keep the traditions but break the rules; move forward and look to the future.

Who are your clients going to be? Who are you going to have to attract as talent to your institutions to work in, because they’re going to have a lot of choice? How are you going to attract people? You’re going to have to modernise.

HK: So for some of the young people watching, becoming a GC may seem obscure. What’s involved?

SO: There are many different ways to describe it. But you go from being sort of a technical lawyer where you have expertise in a particular area to actually being an adviser to the board and senior management, in a very independent way. You are ultimately in charge of the whole legal team – for me that’s 170 people.

Liking people and being a good manager and leader is important, as well as being a good lawyer. But you have to do that lawyering in a way that is no longer technical. That’s the difference. You are usually going to be the only lawyer in the room when speaking to others – the CFO, the CEO, the COO – about really big issues. The problems come to you when nobody else can solve them and you have to make the call. But you are part of that senior management team, you are part of that strategy.

The institution is your client and you have many stakeholders, which could be the regulators, the shareholders and the customer. So, you have to make sure everything is fair for everybody, that everything is done with integrity. Regulation and governance has become really important. Good governance will save you – bad governance will kill you. And you need your GC and your legal team to guide you through that. That will instil good behaviours in staff as well, which is really important because I think the way that people behave is becoming a real issue in institutions.

I want to see the role of GC evolve a little bit more [in terms of] conscience and doing good and promoting rule of law, access to justice, equality and diversity. That’s where I think it should sit, as the conscience of the institution.

HK: Can you tell those who are not familiar with it, what the purpose of the World Bank is?

SO: The mission of the World Bank is to end extreme poverty and boost prosperity. We were created at the end of the Second World War to help finance the reconstruction of Europe. We’re not a bank you can go to to get a mortgage from, we’re not a city bank – we lend to lower income and middle-income countries at concessional rates, or with grants so that they can improve their prosperity. We have 187 member countries and our board consists of representatives of those countries.

We’re a knowledge bank as well – we’re full of experts, many of whom are economists. So if you’re in Peru and you’re borrowing money for the metro system in Lima, you also get experts who know how to build a metro system. So many really amazing people come through the bank with expertise in particular areas, and that is available as well alongside the lending.

HK: Does the World Bank ever ‘wag a finger’ at a country about its value system or about how it’s behaving itself when it comes to the business of borrowing money?

SO: No, we don’t, and we’re not allowed to do that under our articles. Our articles have a political prohibition that means we can only lend based on economic considerations, that’s very clear. We have 187 member countries. If we were to play politics, nobody would be lent any money.

However, one of the things we do do in our lending programmes, and it’s part of the agreement, is we have environmental and social safeguards built in so that we ensure that there is equal treatment when it comes to access to the things that we are building – say, a hospital.

HK: When you are giving money, does the fact that a country might be opening its borders to refugees therefore become a consideration for you as distinct from the countries that are closing their borders to the arrival of people fleeing horrible events like conflicts?

SO: We don’t tell countries they have to borrow money from us. They have to come to us wanting to borrow money. A number of our member countries who have been taking refugees have come to the bank for lending to help with that.

HK: Does a government have to be recognised in some way [for the bank to lend]? I’m looking at the situation, for example, in Afghanistan at the moment.

We’ve accounted for $26bn [for climate-related projects] in 2021 alone, which is historic

SO: We deal with all the countries as the governments change – if it’s under constitutional means we deal with the government, whatever your political persuasion. When there’s been a coup or takeover, we will do an assessment. And while we’re doing this assessment, we will pause our lending and our programmes.

The first thing is the safety of our staff in the country. And then to assess whether obligations can be met. The other thing that’s really important is we as an institution do not recognise governments. Our member countries recognise governments, and if the majority of our member governments recognise a government, we will recognise it. But we’re not a sovereign.

Our rules and policies, even in a situation that’s complicated, do allow us, through grants, to give money for humanitarian purposes or to carry out an education programme or health programme to other UN agencies who can go in and assist. Every country remains a World Bank member no matter what is going on in their country.

HK: Do human rights, as a sort of value system, in any way play a part in in the evaluations you make and the risk assessments you make in terms of lending and so on?

SO: Human rights are definitely present in the work that the World Bank does. We just have to be very careful if that is politicised; we have to step out of it. Many of our member countries have signed up to international treaties that they are bound to by international law, and we’re there to help them meet those obligations.

HK: To what extent is climate change something that might be discussed at the World Bank because of course, there are lots of countries that are going to be particularly at risk? They’re almost invariably the poorest, but there are issues for all of us. Does that come into your considerations in the lending process?

SO: Very much so. It’s really at the heart of a lot of things that we are doing. We have worked out that by the end of this decade, 132 million people will be living in extreme poverty because of climate change, and our role is to end extreme poverty. So we’re right in the heart of it.

We have been the largest multilateral funder of climate investments in developing countries, and we’ve accounted for $26bn in 2021 alone, which is historic. So we’re really putting our money where our mouth is on climate. This is an existential crisis for the planet.

The other thing is that Covid has really changed things as well when it comes to our mission. So, you’ve not just got the climate crisis, but you’ve got the overlay of Covid on top of that as well. In a post-Covid world, 100 million more people will be living on less than $1.90 day – that’s our definition of poverty.

HK: I want to thank you for giving us your time today. It’s been wonderful and I hope inspirational to all those who’ve heard you.

SO: Thank you, Helena. Thank you, everybody.

This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity. Watch the full interview here

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