Old mentality must change

The World Bank’s board of directors confirmed Robert Zoellick on Monday as the lender’s next president, under a World War II-era tacit agreement that gives Washington the privilege of filling the institution’s top job. The Bank’s 24 board members, who ostensibly represent 185 member countries, unanimously voted for Zoellick, nominated by President George W Bush last month. Zoellick was the only candidate running for the post. His appointment will be effective July 1, making him the 11th president of the Bank for a five-year term.

President Bush said in a statement that Zoellick was “a dynamic leader who is deeply committed to the mission of the World Bank in helping struggling nations to defeat poverty.” In his own statement, Zoellick sounded a conciliatory tone, contrasting himself with the more combative Wolfowitz. Zoellick promised to start his tenure by “learning” from stakeholders and reaching out to all players inside and outside the Bank.

“Once I start at the World Bank, I will be eager to meet the people who drive the agenda of overcoming poverty in all regions,” he said. “I know of the staff’s passion for this mission. And I respect the staff’s proud record, continuing search for learning and improvement, and commitment to results.” Zoellick also acknowledged that the Bank was in need of changes, a call that has been reverberating for years with little real action.

“The world has changed enormously since the creation of the Bank some 60 years ago. This accomplished institution of development, reconstruction, and finance not only needs to adapt: It must lead the way to achieving sustainable globalisation, founded upon inclusive growth, opportunity, and respect for personal dignity,” he said.

But apart from reforming the Bank, other less ambitious and more realistic issues he faces include raising funds for the Bank’s soft-loan arm, the International Development Association (IDA). Bank officials seek replenishment for the IDA every three years. Now is the 15th round for raising such funds, European countries had threatened to withhold or cut down on their contributions if former president Paul Wolfowitz stayed on.

As the US Trade Representative during Bush’s first term, Zoellick was a staunch supporter of agricultural subsidies in developed countries, which even World Bank economists credit for spreading poverty among the world’s farmers. He also defended US trade related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) that have largely been blamed for keeping life-saving drugs out of reach of poor people across the globe.

The unwritten understanding is that the IMF’s managing director is always a European while the World Bank president is always a US national. Analysts as well as advocacy groups had sought to use the opportunity of the Wolfowtiz controversy to draw attention to this elitist mechanism, particularly since both institutions wield enormous power and influence on poor countries and millions of people across the world.

“Yet again we see the US brazenly inserting ‘their guy’ as head of the World Bank in a way that is totally out of step with contemporary norms and expectations about democracy,” said Rick Rowden, senior policy analyst with ActionAid. “This demonstrates an old world mentality that must change.” — IPS