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A Flawed Process Can Produce a Flawed World Bank President

Bea Edwards, March 30, 2012

WorldBankOnce again it’s time to debate who should be the next World Bank President. By tacit post- World-War-II agreement, the World Bank President has always been an American, while European governments are entitled to produce the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But this year, “the process” debate is also open. Although any member government is now, theoretically, able to nominate a candidate – and a couple of them have – everyone knows the US nominee is the hands-down, walk-away winner. So many onlookers are vocally objecting to the unfairness of an arrangement among a closed group of First-World governments that allows them to choose the heads of international financial institutions among themselves – secretly.

It’s not as if this procedure has worked well lately. In the past five years, we’ve seen both a World Bank President and an IMF Managing Director resign after their appalling personal conduct came to light. Paul Wolfowitz left the Bank in June 2007 after whistleblowers exposed the sinecure he arranged for his “girlfriend,” and it became clear that he had lied to the press and the Bank’s Board about it. The departure of Dominique Strauss-Kahn from the IMF was even more sordid, involving criminal charges of sexual assault in 2011. DSK did go home a free man, but this week he’s back in the news – under investigation for “aggravated pimping” in France.

Nice. These episodes ought to be enough to make even the most defiant defenders of First World privilege rethink the wisdom of the backchannel deal-making for such powerful positions. Some kind of open, merit-based selection process might have illuminated the character flaws of these two before the world’s finance ministers handed them the keys to the international economy.

While it’s true that for the prospective World Bank President, a nominal campaign is involved, we’re not reassured when we get a look at the few enfranchised voters. Soon, it seems, Jim Yong Kim, the Obama administration’s nominee, will embark on an intercontinental tour to promote his candidacy. He’s scheduled to meet with an elite roster of kingmakers and power brokers in Ethiopia, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Brazil and Mexico. You can’t help but wonder what (and how much) will change hands in those exclusive deliberations. And we’ll all have to wonder forever because none of us waiting outside will ever know.

Here’s a possibility: a certain number of highly coveted World Bank posts will be allocated to the governments who are first to sign on to this new U.S.-sponsored Coalition of the Willing. Policy-making positions on issues likely to elicit major money flows come to mind as rewards for a favorable vote on the touring “candidate,” for example.

It’s hard to say what could be done to fix this, but an open selection process would help. The candidates ought to have to tell the public – whose money they will spend – what they intend to do. For example, Wolfowitz was hell-bent on taking the Bank into Iraq, even as the war there exploded in 2006. He was busily circumventing reasonable protocols that would have prevented this when his ethical lapses came to light. Clearly this plan was in the works even as he “campaigned:” early on he chose Ana Palacio of Spain as his General Counsel. Spain, you will recall, was a member in good standing of the Coalition of the Willing, and Palacio proved to be such a loyal Wolfowitz lieutenant that the Board of Directors refused her counsel as its members tried to find a way to deal with her unethical boss.

Robert Zoellick, the current Bank President, might have had to at least think about what he intended once or twice before he arrived at the Bank, if he’d had to explain himself to the press and the public. As it was, he never seemed to know what he was doing and popped from the food price crisis over to the financial crisis and back again, finally settling – for reasons not entirely clear – on education for girls as a priority. Not that girls’ education isn’t important, but you have to have an attention span longer than Zoellick’s to get it underway. 

So now we have Jim Yong Kim as the heir apparent. He’s a physician and an educator with experience in the field of HIV/AIDS research. He has credentials from Harvard, Dartmouth and the World Health Organization. If an informed public could ask him a question or two – perhaps about his development priorities, or his views of public vs. private sector responsibilities in health care – that would be useful. Because once he’s “elected,” he’s unreachable and unaccountable. Under the Bank’s Articles of Agreement, our Congress cannot question him no matter what happens, and neither can anyone else’s. 

This said, it would make sense to adopt the position of the confidential expert whom Peter Chowla cited in his recent blog:

…[E]ach candidate should publish a clear manifesto declaring their positions, and preferably the Bank should organise public hustings at which staff and others can ask key questions, or televise the interviews. For a Bank so committed to transparency, this would be a small ask…

While the writer sounds a derisive note at the end there, he or she is right to object to this high-handed and unilateral process, and demand that – at the very least – the public get a glimpse of who and what is in store for the World Bank, those who borrow from it and those who work there. 


Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy orgnization.