Is Zoellick the right man for the job?

US President George W Bush has nominated Robert Zoellick, a Wall Street executive, former administration official and a free market fundamentalist to succeed disgraced World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, who steps down on June 30. “Bob Zoellick is the right man to succeed Paul in this vital work,” Bush said on Wednesday. The announcement cut short speculation about a process that saw dozens of names floated to be the next leader of the international public lender, now reeling from an ethics scandal.

Following the announcement, Zoellick pledged to work to restore confidence in the Bank, after revelations that Wolfowitz had given his girlfriend and colleague Shaha Riza an unauthorised pay raise led to calls from Bank staff, international economists and many countries for Wolfowitz’s ouster. “We need to put yesterday’s discord behind us and to focus on the future together. I believe that the World Bank’s best days are still to come,”

Zoellick said.

The Bank’s 24-member Board of Directors, which should receive a formal notice of the nomination before mid-June, says it will make its final decision by the end of that month. Zoellick is likely to be confirmed under a tacit agreement between the two powers that control the Bank’s board, the US and Europe, that the Bank’s president should always be a US national while its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, is headed by a European. The nomination also appears to short-circuit burgeoning calls for reform of this selection process at the Bank, one of the cornerstones of the global financial architecture as designed by the victors of World War II.

On Wednesday, the Centre for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank, released a survey showing that nearly 85 per cent of 700 respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with continuing the status quo, in which the US nominates a single candidate after informal consultations with Bank members. A similar number favoured a merit-based selection process, without regard to nationality. The survey was conducted among members of the international development community, including government agencies, universities and think tanks, NGOs, and staff at the World Bank and other multilateral institutions. NGOs, which have been at the forefront in calling for reform of the selection process, say that Zoellick’s nomination is a blow to their campaign to bring democracy to the Bank.

As US Trade Representative Zoellick was often criticised for arm-twisting poor nations’ governments to adhere to US-imposed intellectual property laws that make medicines unaffordable to the developing world. “He has been a close friend to the brand-name pharmaceutical industry,” said Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance. “This is terrible for AIDS patients, most of whom cannot afford brand-name prices.”

His nomination has been troubling for civil society groups which fear that Zoellick, currently a top executive with investment firm Goldman Sachs, may alter the World Bank’s practice of allowing countries to use its aid to purchase generic medications. The Bank has previously defended the right of countries like Thailand to issue compulsory licenses for access to affordable medications. “We fear this could change under Zoellick,” Zeitz said. — IPS