The announcement that Robert Zoellick will step down from his position as president of the World Bank has been greeted with feverish speculation about who will succeed him.
Two clear camps have already emerged: those who want a continuation of the informal agreement that the head of the World Bank must be an American and those who are demanding that the candidate should come from the emerging world.
Zoellick came into his post following influential stints in the US administration – he was US Trade Representative until 2005 then served for one year as the Deputy Secretary of State (2005/6) under George Bush before being appointed head of the World Bank in 2007.
In 1998, he was one of the signatories of a letter to then President Bill Clinton from a think-tank called Project for the New American Century which, among other issues, advocated a war against Iraq.
He was thus seen as part of the group that was championing the concept of ‘full spectrum’ American domination of the world. This was held against him when he was appointed US Trade Representative at ambassadorial level but he proved his critics wrong, and upset many US ‘hawks’, when he said that China was a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in global affairs and that American fears of a Chinese global dominion were unfounded. He also launched new global trading negotiations in Doha, Qatar, that sought to address some of the most pressing issues facing the emerging markets and Africa.
I met him, before he became president of the World Bank, during an African Growth and Opportunity (AGOA) meeting in Mauritius where he told me categorically that – contrary to strong rumours at the time – the US had no intention of removing the favourable tariff granted to African exports under AGOA. He then turned the tables on me and grilled me at length on broader African issues because, he said, he had a special affinity for the continent.
True to his word, when he became head of the World Bank, he declared: “The World Bank Group faces the challenge of helping to overcome poverty and spur sustainable growth in the poorest countries, especially in Africa … Second, we need to address the special problems of states coming out of conflict or seeking to avoid the breakdown of the state..”
During his tenure, according to some of the staff of the institution, he moved the Bank from its unstated but easily perceived policy of extending Western, particularly US, economic and political interests to a genuinely global institution. The World Bank, especially the WB Institute, has indeed, as he said, become the “unique and special institution of knowledge and learning. It collects and supplies valuable data. Yet this is not a university – rather it is a ‘brain trust’ of applied experience”.
A number of African experts and intellectuals work for the organisation and I have also been privileged to be involved in some of its projects to disseminate knowledge about the mechanics of the global economy. It is indeed an extraordinary storehouse of knowledge and expertise.
Zoellick opened up the Bank to greater participation from experts from the emerging world and encouraged far greater debate and discussion than had ever been done before. The Bank’s earlier narrow, Washington-oriented view widened very considerably and the organisation began to fall more readily in line with the needs of the global reality.
It was also during his time that the critical position of the World Bank’s chief economist went to a non-Westerner, Justin Lin. We published a fascinating interview with Lin in which he demolished many the Bank’s long-held perspectives and policies.
It is perhaps ironic that there is an increasingly vociferous campaign that the next head of the Bank should come from the developing world precisely because it has now become such a global institution.
The campaign is being spearheaded by Oxfam, Eurodad (European Network on Debt and Development) and the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (Afrodad). Elizabeth Stuart of Oxfam says: “The Bank only operates in developing countries, so any candidate not supported by a majority of these countries would plainly lack legitimacy.”
The campaigners want a clear job description, applications open to all and the majority of member countries to choose the candidate in an open and transparent manner. Indeed. If the World Bank is to genuinely live up its name, its next leader must come from the world – not just the US. If the best candidate happens to be American, then so be it but to bar 80% of the world’s population from even applying for the job is logic gone completely missing.