It is a bitterly cold day and Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford university, offers a warming cup of peppermint-liquorice tea from a kitchen counter decorated with Mexican tiles.
An electric kettle competes for space with another essential home appliance – a giant printer-fax machine – and Woods is quick to admit that her approach to her Oxford house is, above all, functional. “I’m not passionate about my home. For me, home is eating and friends and children,” she says. “Fixing up a house is just not on my list of top 500 priorities. I don’t have time.”
Her focus may not be on home interiors, but as the dean of Oxford’s first school of government, Woods, 50, is helping to refurbish assemblies and executive offices around the globe – by teaching future leaders how to run their countries.
“We’re being asked by governments around the world to train their leaders. Developed countries. Emerging countries. I was just in China. I’m in discussions with governments thinking hard about how we deliver the mission, to improve government ... how can we really make a difference?”
The school, founded with a hefty £75m gift from Russian-American industrialist Leonard Blavatnik, opened its doors last September with an initial intake of 38 students. “We had the highest number of applications of any Oxford graduate school. They’re coming in from Yemen, the Philippines, China, Kenya, Kosovo, across the globe.”
Woods herself grew up in Torbay, New Zealand. She studied at Rangitoto College, New Zealand’s largest secondary school, and the University of Auckland before winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in 1987. Except for a stint teaching in the US, she has stayed put – and it was here in Oxford that Woods met her American husband, Eugene Rogan, a fellow academic and author of the bestselling The Arabs: A History.
“We’ve lived in this house for 17 years,” says Woods, who has two children, aged 10 and 13, with Rogan. The property is not far from the Radcliffe Observatory. “When we bought the house, it was dark and overgrown. We added on this light space. We also added the back [extension] to fit in all our books,” she says.
Woods’ academic work frequently addresses the role of international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in global governance. “In my book The Globalizers , I was asking why the IMF and the World Bank do what they do.”
An early case study was Mexico. “I spent a lot of time in Mexico between 1992 and 2005,” she says, adding that the IMF was viewed in a very negative light by the Mexican public during the financial crisis of the 1980s. “It was seen as evil. But Mexicans should have asked themselves why the IMF was called in in the first place. Most of the previous administrations had sucked the place dry. [Ernesto] Zedillo was one of the first presidents who didn’t.”
The IMF, says Woods, was blamed for a perceived bailout of international banks. “The problem is that the IMF stepped in after 1982 to prevent international instability. And that meant stopping major international banks from going bust.” Public anger was further inflamed by harsh austerity measures. “They were a disaster. By 1985 the situation was dire. By 1989 the banks had gotten off the hook and Mexico was stuck with an unmanageable debt. That’s how you got the Brady Plan and Mexico finally got stabilised.”
However, Woods notes that the east Asian crisis of 1997 prompted a rethink at the IMF. “The Asian crisis focused tremendous hostility on the IMF,” she says, “and there was an internal debate ... Should it really be a global debt enforcer? The institution changed. In 2002 it announced the idea of a sovereign debt restructuring mechanism.”
Outside the window, an expanse of patchy grass leads to a gnarled tree that towers over the garden. “It’s a magnolia tree,” says Woods. “When we did the back extension we had a tree surgeon work with the engineer to design foundations which wouldn’t disturb the roots. The blossoms are magnificent, like pink champagne.” Inside, a flourishing lemon tree presses against a window. “I do like plants,” she says, “and I like to nourish things.”
After launching a global economic governance programme, Woods, a professor of international relations, was chosen as dean of the Blavatnik School.
“All the major schools of government are in the US. Not only is Oxford not the US but it has been educating leaders for nearly 900 years,” she says. But does the world need yet another school of public affairs? “This is not a school of public affairs. And it’s not a school about why governments fail. It’s a school about what works; how do we learn from it; how do we build on it; how do we educate the next generation of leaders to use science, engineering and to be more effective.”
And to what extent is Blavatnik involved in the school? “He’s hugely supportive and a cheerleader but he’s not attempting to influence the school. He spends a lot of time on aeroplanes,” says Woods, who also has a hectic travel schedule.
Asked whether the school will tackle the work-life hurdles for women at upper reaches of government, Woods replies: “It’s true that many young women think they have to choose between careers in government and family.” She agrees that the senior attrition rate in most countries is high. “[The economist] Sylvia Ann Hewlett has said that 41 per cent of very senior women professionals have no children.” Woods divides childcare with her husband. “We don’t have a nanny or babysitter. We pass the baton to each other. It’s good discipline.”
Hanging over the kitchen table is a framed photograph of a sailing boat. Woods says she feels most at home on the water and, more specifically, on a 9.5 metre family sloop which she keeps at a marina in Haslar, on England’s south coast. “We sail all year,” she says, “I like sailing. You just have to think about the tide and the wind.”
We return to global financial tempests. “The IMF is being asked in Greece to do the impossible,” says Woods. “It’s being asked to lend Greece money and the IMF can only lend to countries that can repay. That’s why the IMF always looks so optimistic about a country growing, exactly like Mexico in 1982. We’re seeing a similar thing in Greece. But it’s been an impossible situation for extremely good economists at the IMF who have been asked to cut the robe to fit the cloth. It’s a small cloth and a very ambitious robe.”
In the sitting room, Woods shows me a gold-framed portrait of a young woman in a silk dress. “She was Scottish. It’s by a Scottish painter, David Souter. She married my great-uncle who also came to Britain from New Zealand as a grad student in chemistry. He was born the year this house was built: 1904.”
I ask whether Woods feels daunted trying to build a new school within a 900-year-old British institution. “If you let yourself get down listening to the negatives, the risks, the naysayers, you’d never get anything done at Oxford. But if you focus on the positive, everything is possible. I like to marshal people around what works.” She points out that the west can also learn from emerging markets. “Gone are the days when the US and Britain tell the rest of the world how to govern.”
The phone rings, a reminder that a phone conference is about to begin. “My office is just two minutes away by bike,” says Woods, wheeling out her bicycle. Just time to ask about last month’s conference at Davos, where she says she enjoyed the jostling and bartering among the world’s power-brokers. “I loved it. It was fun. It was like a Cameroonian market.”
“This is called ‘oware’,” says Woods, picking up pieces of a wooden board game. “Fifteen years ago, we were in Cameroon at the first Commonwealth conference on democracy and I managed to get away to the market and watch the elders play it. You drop the seedpods down. You grab them and they are yours. It was a wonderful afternoon watching them play, although I didn’t know their dialects and couldn’t speak to them. I just watched to learn the rules. I loved the sound of the game. It’s about playing and competing and having fun. All the things I like about people.”