The case for a heterodox feminist World Bank President 

By Elaine Zuckerman, Gender Action

As the World Bank is not closing its doors anytime soon and a new Bank President will take command in mid-2023, many Bank-watchers are demanding a first-ever merit-based selection process. Since the Bank’s 1944 establishment, the United States has maintained a neocolonial stranglehold on the position. As soon as current climate-denying Bank President David Malpass announced plans to resign, the US immediately nominated another American citizen – Indian-American Ajay Banga. 

A global civil society outpouring has condemned Banga’s nomination for reasons including:

  • The time is long overdue to end the US neocolonial prerogative to fill the World Bank presidency. The Bank’s other 188 shareholder countries should not allow the US nominee to become the 15th American President.
  • While the Bank must end its continuing support for fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry’s capture of the Bank, Banga’s positions on corporate Boards supporting fossil fuels undermines confidence that he will robustly tackle climate change.
  • Banga’s record promoting the private over the public sector suggests he would likely consolidate the Bank’s overzealous global privatization of infrastructure and services, thereby continuing to deepen rising class inequalities that hinder achieving the Bank’s dual mission to end extreme poverty and achieve shared prosperity. 

Hopefully nominees who outshine Banga will be put forward during the remainder of the unacceptably short three-week nomination process that closes on March 29. Such nominees should be feminist heterodox leaders, preferably from the Global South, who oppose the Bank’s long-time neoliberal orthodoxy.

A heterodox feminist World Bank President: Some stakeholders call for a first female World Bank President who would symbolize the increasing power of women. But a woman President alone will not be enough to right the Bank. What the Bank needs is a heterodox feminist President: 

Why Heterodox? The Bank needs a heterodox economic proponent who would promote expansionary rather than contractionary public spending. To do so, they would end the Bank’s privatization and austerity requirements that reduce poor women’s, men’s and sexual and gender minorities’ (SGMs’) access to public services while rendering privatized services unaffordable. 

A recent Action Aid report shows that 85 per cent of the world’s population was expected to live under austerity measures in 2022. These austerity measures include cutting or freezing the wages and numbers of teachers, health workers and other public sector workers, the majority of whom are women, and undermining health and education outcomes.

The next Bank President must prioritize public financing for public investments and services, reverse the austerity wave and promote a fair resolution to borrower countries’ sovereign debt distress, including through debt cancellation.

Why Feminist? The Bank needs a feminist female, LGBTQ or male President, preferably from the Global South, who would: (1) promote public-sector policies and investments that benefit women, men and SGMs; (2) end investments in and policy support for fossil fuels that are destroying our planet and the health, homes and livelihoods of everyone, especially vulnerable women and SGMs; and (3) strive to eradicate patriarchal mindsets remaining among some Bank employees and Board members. These destructive practices persist despite Bank rhetoric promoting gender diversity and clean climate measures.

The first feminist Bank President must ensure the Bank’s forthcoming gender strategy update will no longer promote gender issues in a vacuum isolated from overarching austerity, privatization, and vicious debt cycles. 

A new 2023 report titled IFIs’ Rhetorical Gender & Climate Promises, by Gender Action, Friends of the Earth and Urgewald, which scores and ranks the strength, adequacy or weakness of over a dozen International Financial Institutions’ (IFIs) gender policies and the gender sensitivity of their Environmental and Social Frameworks (ESFs), found the World Bank gender strategy and ESF’s gender sensitivity ranked at the bottom of the stack.

To improve Bank gender priorities, the first heterodox feminist Bank President must ensure that Bank projects stop: (1) facilitating project conditions that force some women and girls into sex work to survive; (2) removing farmers, especially women, from land and homes to build many types of infrastructure including unacceptable fossil fuel facilities that contribute to planetary destruction; and (3) clearing tropical rain forests for biofuel export crops that also dispossess poor farmers, mostly women, of land, livelihoods and homes.

The first heterodox feminist Bank President must ensure that the Bank adheres to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other international human rights treaties ratified by an overwhelming majority of member countries and uses human rights language to frame its work.

Recapping key recommendations:

  • The next Bank President must end the Bank’s explosive neoliberal austerity and privatization-of-everything practices.
  • The next Bank President must completely end all support for fossil fuel-related activities.
  • The Bank must end its non-democratic presidential selection process and the American male presidential monopoly.  

We cannot let another five-year Bank presidential term elapse while global and local climate, debt, food security and other crises deepen and gender equality remains 300 years away. The Bank needs a heterodox feminist President to tackle these issues now.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire? Malpass’s departure, Banga’s likely arrival, and the rebirth of the ‘Billions to Trillions’ zombie as climate saviour

Credit: DisobeyArt / Shutterstock

Few in the civil society community that works on the World Bank Group will shed tears at the early departure of the World Bank’s outgoing president, David Malpass, who announced last month that he will step down by 30 June.

After being nominated by US president Donald J Trump in February 2019, and appointed in April of that year, Malpass has spent much of his four years at the helm of the world’s largest development finance institution as a walking cautionary tale of the negative repercussions of the gentleman’s agreement – an informal pact among the Bank’s most powerful shareholders that has seen the US handpick every Bank president to date.

While Malpass’s history of climate change scepticism – including at a September New York Times event when he repeatedly refused to confirm he accepted the scientific consensus on climate change, when pushed by NYT reporter David Gelles – rightly received strong condemnation, the issues with his presidency went much deeper.

Malpass opposed the TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, despite the lethal health and other dire consequences of massive corporate profiteering by pharmaceutical companies during the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that the vast majority of the Bank’s member countries supported it. Under his leadership, the World Bank’s flagship Doing Business Report (DBR) – which promoted corporate-friendly reforms – was discontinued, with lingering questions about when Malpass became aware of alleged data manipulation by Bank staff in the report. Whatever the case, Malpass was clear that despite DBR’s demise, his support for the Bank’s efforts to promote a pro-business ‘enabling environment’ in its borrower countries remained undimmed.

Although Malpass rarely mentioned climate change in his first year in charge, when he belatedly warmed to the topic as the 2020 US presidential elections approached, it was very much through the lens of what economist Daniela Gabor has dubbed the Wall Street Climate Consensus, where the role of the state is reduced to ‘de-risking’ private sector investments. Malpass enthusiastically engaged with the notion of creating ‘investable project pipelines’ for the private sector as a means of greening World Bank client country economies, and met with BlackRock CEO Larry Fink to discuss the topic at the 2021 Annual Meetings.

In this regard, at least, Malpass – a Wall Street veteran, including an ill-fated stint as chief economist for Bear Stearns, which was one of the high-profile casualties of the 2008 global financial crisis – shares an uncomfortable level of similarity with his likely successor, US nominee Ajay Banga, a former CEO of Mastercard – whose qualifications for the job, according to the Biden Administration, include “forging public-private partnerships”.

Banga’s nomination coincides with a World Bank ‘evolution’ process where all signs point to a potential deepening of the World Bank’s Billions to Trillions approach, which has been variously referred to as the Cascade, Maximising Finance for Development, and – in the post-Covid-19 era – Green, Inclusive and Resilient Development.

However, promises that the Billions to Trillions agenda would bring private finance at scale to development initiatives have thus far rung hollow, even in the relatively more favourable environment prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.  

The World Bank evolution roadmap takes this policy paradigm in a potentially even more counterproductive direction, via proposals to securitise World Bank projects and sell them off to institutional investors.

Advait Arun warned of the dangers of such an approach in a February piece in Phenomenal World, noting, “While securitization may free up balance sheets in the short term, in the long run this is yet another financial “innovation” that will put private investors in the drivers’ seat of the green transition―likely at considerable cost to everyone else.”

While comparisons between Banga and Malpass may seem imprecise, another World Bank president who promotes the Wall Street Consensus raises the possibility of policy reform discussions being dominated by more vain, and developmentally illiterate, efforts to crowd in private finance from the very institutions that have helped finance the climate crisis in the first place and remain heavily exposed to the fossil fuel bubble – which itself represents a potentially destabilising feature of the current, financialised global economy.

It’s difficult to see how ‘private-sector solutionism’ will facilitate ‘green’ economic transformation in World Bank ‘client’ countries that is rooted firmly in a human rights-based approach, rather than Wall Street profit motives.

What is desperately needed are strategies to mobilise public finance at scale and a greater role for the developmental state in allocating green finance, in order to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Such a world is possible, but not if corporate finance continues to rule the day.

Civil society demands the end of the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ and calls for merit-based, open and transparent World Bank presidential selection process

The undersigned organisations and individuals write to demand that the World Bank use the opportunity of the resignation of President David Malpass to heed long-standing calls from global civil society and countries from the Global South and ensure the next World Bank president is selected in accordance with a merit-based, open and transparent process, underpinned by well-defined and publicly available selection criteria and civil society engagement with the candidates. The time has surely come to put an end to the archaic gentleman’s agreement, which has its origins in the times of empire and continues to damage the institution’s standing and legitimacy. 

The selection of the World Bank’s next president takes place at a time of mounting global challenges, such as the existential climate and nature crisis, rising inequality, increasing debt distress and the related increase in social and political instability. It also occurs against the backdrop of increasing threats of the fragmentation of the multilateral order. The proposed expansion of the BRICS grouping and the establishment of the New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are clear evidence of the frustration with and consequences of the continued lack of democratic legitimacy of the Bretton Woods Institutions, and the need for an urgent change in their governance. 

Discussions of the World Bank’s evolution roadmap, the G20 MDBs’ capital adequacy frameworks, alongside the Bridgetown Initiative and commitments made at COP26 to meet global goals for nature, climate and people, are signs of a recognition that the World Bank must change if it is to rise to the occasion, meet its development mandate and gain the trust of the population and states of the Global South.  

The next president must have the qualifications, experience and commitment to integrity to ensure that the Bank’s policies and approaches seriously engage with the vast academic and civil society literature that documents the need for urgent reform. The president must ensure reforms are the result of a clear, critical and evidence-based analysis of the serious flaws and shortcomings of the World Bank’s approach to date. 

As the World commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 50th anniversary of the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, we demand that the criteria for the next World Bank president include: 

  •  Minimum of 20 years of professional work experience in the field of sustainable economic and social development, including at international and country levels; 
  • A demonstrated commitment to international human rights law and standards, to ensure that  the World Bank does not work against human rights but to advance prosperity for all, including by developing a human rights policy for the institution and helping to deliver the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; 
  • A demonstrated understanding and commitment to urgently tackle climate change and ensure development supports nature, peoples and the planet;
  • Sufficient experience in development issues to lead a critical analysis of the Bank’s development approach and private sector bias to date; 
  • An understanding of and commitment to feminist principles, equitable development and the green and just transition; 
  • A commitment to ensuring that World Bank policies and programmes advance community-led development, are truly country-led and support ending poverty, reducing inequality and creating shared prosperity for all, as well as the economic transformation necessary for a global green and just transition; and 
  • A commitment to engagement with global civil society and, importantly, civil society at the country and local levels and with under-represented communities, as core to its mission. 

We also demand that the selection process be open and transparent and includes an opportunity for civil society to engage with the candidates. In that regard, we demand that: 

  • The World Bank publishes the revised and detailed selection criteria, including the minimum standards outlined above; 
  • Shareholder votes are made public; and  
  • The World Bank hosts exchanges between candidates and civil society at the upcoming Spring Meetings in Washington DC. 

The process used to select the next World Bank president will speak volumes about whether the reforms undertaken under the banner of an ‘evolution’ of the Bank will result in urgently needed change in policies and approach, and thus enable it to play a positive role in supporting an equitable, feminist, green and just transition, or will rather result in a little changed, but marginally better resourced, institution.

Access the letter and list of signatories here.

BWP’s reaction to the resignation of World Bank’s President David Malpass

World Bank President David Malpass’s surprise resignation, which will take place by 30 June, comes as the World Bank shareholders are reviewing its draft ‘Evolution Roadmap’ aimed at expanding the Bank’s lending capacity and improving its ability to respond to global challenges, including climate change, fragility and growing global health threats. The process by which the World Bank selects Malpass’s replacement will speak volumes about the degree to which discussions about a World Bank ‘evolution’ go beyond superficial reforms underpinned by additional resources – and premised on increased expansion of the Bank’s preference for private sector-led development.  Discussions about equipping the institution to better respond to global challenges and support the provision of global public goods cannot be taken seriously without an end to the gentleman’s agreement that has ensured a US monopoly on the presidency of the World Bank, with all of the Bank’s presidents to date being men.  

As global civil society and social movements have long demanded, a new president should be appointed through a merit-based, transparent process with criteria publicly available and candidates being able to present their platform. The new process should at the very least mirror the process used to select the UN General Secretary, where candidates respond publicly to questions from civil society and social movements. 

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as the World Bank works to align its activities with the Paris Agreement this year and the United Nations works towards the Summit of the Future in 2024, it is essential that any candidate for the World Bank’s presidency demonstrates a commitment to human rights. This is required to ensure that any ‘evolution’ of the World Bank enables it to fulfil its development mandate, respond to multiple crises and to support a truly green and just transition.