Is the World Bank finally committed to an open and merit-based selection process? Only time will tell…

Alicia Nicholls

The current president of the Washington DC-based World Bank, Robert Zoellick, a former executive with Goldman Sachs, will be stepping down from the post in June of this year.  Per a tacit agreement between the US and European countries, all eleven presidents of the World Bank since the Bank’s founding in 1944 have been American. Concomitantly, a European has always headed its sister institution the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This present World Bank selection cycle has seen an unprecedented challenge to US monopoly of the World Bank’s leadership to date. The US’ nominee, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, faces stiff competition from two nominees from the global South, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria and the Brazil-nominated Mr. Jose Antonio Ocampo from Colombia.  Coming on the heels of the IMF’s managing director selection process last year when Europe retained its perennial grip on that institution’s leadership position, the question on everyone’s mind is whether this World Bank selection cycle will see a continuation of the status quo or whether either candidate from the global South will stand a decent chance of assuming the reins of this important international financial institution (IFI).

The contemporary geopolitical and economic configuration of the world is much different from that which existed in the immediate post-World War II era in which the Bretton Woods institutions were born. The US, while still the world’s largest economy by GDP, now shares the world stage with several increasingly important poles of growth, notably emerging economies which have been the main engines of economic recovery. Yet the World Bank’s governance structure does not reflect this multipolar reality. Tired of the iniquitous status quo, the BRICS have been pushing for reform of the Bretton Woods institutions to reflect present-day economic realities and to allow developing countries a greater say in the international financial and economic system. While the BRICS have been successful in increasing their voting power in the World Bank, securing the top post has been a different story. Will this time be different?

Brazil has nominated former Colombian Minister of Finance, Jose Antonio Ocampo, a US-trained economist who is currently a Professor at the Ivy-League Columbia University in New York City. In its communiqué of March 26th, the African Union  endorsed the candidacy of renowned Nigerian economist, diplomat and former government minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Perhaps in an attempt to diffuse the calls for change, the Obama administration shied away from the usual choices of bank executives and bureaucrats and instead nominated the Korean-born US national Dr. Jim Yong Kim.  A medical doctor, Dr. Kim is the President of the prestigious Dartmouth College and is well-known for his work in fighting tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS throughout the developing world.

It should be noted that all three candidates being considered are highly educated and tremendously qualified in their respective fields. All three were born in developing countries and educated at Ivy League universities in the US. That being said, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s impeccable qualifications and her vast experience should make her rise to the top of the pack.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is an internationally respected economist with a wealth of expertise in development issues at both the national and global levels.  She has spent more than twenty years at the World Bank until ascending to the post of Managing Director in 2007. She has also served twice as Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs in her home country of Nigeria. It is therefore no surprise that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was named as one of the 100 most powerful women by Forbes Magazine.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as the World Bank’s new president would be a powerful symbol for gender rights. It would be the first time a woman, far less a woman from the global South, would be at the helm of this powerful but traditionally male-dominated global financial institution. A wife and mother of four, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has been outspoken on gender equality and on the macroeconomic and social benefits of providing finance to women and of encouraging women entrepreneurship. In this regard, it is hoped that she would push for more gender-sensitive bank lending programmes.

Perhaps, even more critically, it would be the first time a person from a developing country and an African nation, will be at the head of this institution. The World Bank is an important lender to developing countries and has the twin goals of reducing poverty and promoting development. Despite some of its good work, the World Bank, like its twin sister the IMF, has not always had the best reputation in the developing world, including right here in the Caribbean. During the 1990s, its structural adjustment programmes under the so-called Washington Consensus foisted austere market reforms and other neo-liberal policies on cash-strapped countries as conditionalities for loans. These policies included deregulation, privatization, cuts in Government expenditure (especially in social welfare) and liberalization of capital markets, which if introduced too quickly and/or without the supporting institutional framework could lead and have led to devastating consequences in the countries concerned and have had a disproportionate impact on the livelihoods of women and the poor. For a case in point, just watch the documentary Life and Debt for a vivid look at Jamaica’s experience with IMF-World Bank sponsored structural adjustment. Under a Okonjo-Iweala presidency, it would be hoped that there will be the genesis of a new era in the Bank’s dealings with the South, marked by less focus on free market ideology and a greater sensitivity towards the impact of policies on vulnerable groups in society such as women and the poor.

However, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy faces two big hurdles. Chief among them is the Bank’s ‘democratic deficit’. It is the Bank’s 25-member Board of Executive directors which will ultimately decide the successful candidate.  As the largest economy among the 187 countries in the World Bank, the US has the majority of votes. By choosing a nominee, the US has shown that it will not go against its own strategic interests by supporting a non-American for such a key post.  Moreover, European countries, which hold the second largest block of votes, are unlikely to support a non-US candidate, especially given the US’ support for their IMF nominee last year. Additionally, Japan has already signalled its intention to support the US nominee.

The only alternative would be for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to garner unanimous developing country support. Therein lies the second problem.  The BRICS have been reticent about throwing their support behind a single nominee from the South and have so far not endorsed any of the three candidates. Last year the BRICS missed their opportunity to block the ascension of yet another European to the post of IMF managing director by their inability to unanimously agree on an alternative candidate, even though there were well-qualified non-European candidates.

This crop of candidates will make unanimous developing country support behind a single candidate even more elusive. The Brazil-nominated Mr. Ocampo will probably enjoy significant support from Latin American countries. But as the US nominee, Dr. Kim is the clear front-runner for the job. Moreover, by choosing an Asian-American, a non-banker and a public health professional,  the US has picked a candidate who will undoubtedly garner support from many developing countries, including some Asian countries which have criticised the US’ monopoly of the World Bank leadership position. Despite being the best candidate, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will have a tough, and some say, futile battle for the World Bank presidency.

As the countries which rely the most on IFIs and arguably stand the most to lose from any turmoil in the international financial system, developing countries need to have a greater say in these global financial institutions. Is the World Bank truly committed to an open and merit-based process irrespective of nationality? Only time will tell.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw.

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