Talking about the future of the Bank

The latest Washington Post report on the heating up campaign talks about competition for the job.  It does not say that an American won’t be chosen.  It speaks to some World Bank executive directors wanting to make the selection “competitive”. This is not a bad thing because it will legitimize the selection of the American who is put forward.

But in the continuing obsession with the process and speculation over “a non-American, any non-American”, do not lose sight of an important statement from Rogerio Studart, the Brazilian member of the bank’s 25-member executive board.

“Studart said there was a strong sense among developing countries that the selection of Zoellick’s successor should involve a broader discussion about the bank’s future.

“Tell me what you want for the World Bank,” Studart said. “What kind of culture do you want to bring to this institution? What kind of changes to the organization? People are fixated on names and nationalities. We are fixated on making this an opportunity to make this an institution for the 21st century.”

Let us hope that the executive directors conduct their screening of nominees to arrive at a shortlist, and their interviews and selection, with this in mind.  A president with a vision, who can lead the Bank in that direction, and has the support of its board and owners to do that. This is not just about vision, but about ability.  It’s also time to look at whether the Bank needs a strong Chief Operating Officer to put some order into the Bank’s capacity, its staffing and middle management, and its policies and processes.

Filling that job with a credible insider who is empowered to “do the needful”, while picking an credible American outsider who has the vision to work with the Bank’s owners and stakeholders to shift gears, to define a goal, and move toward it, might work better than choosing someone who was “OK” at both jobs.  At best, the rumored candidates fall short on one side or the other.

It remains to be seen whether the Board has the vision, leadership and discipline itself to select someone who might make them behave differently.  The board and its advisors and caretakers occupy the better part of three floors in the Bank’s Washington headquarters, and the new president should put on the table governance reforms that would eliminate the full-time, resident board and remove its tendency to think it’s management, and second-guess, criticize and question what management puts before them.  By all means, let us ask whether a 21st Century institution needs full-time overseers, and how that could be done better, differently and cheaper.  Let’s have that conversation, so the new president has a mandate to make the Bank really work.

That a director from an important middle income country makes the strategic point about the need to arrest seven years of drift is far more important than a non-US candidate or two, picked in a backroom after leaked and planted news stories about endorsement and support, and put forward for the sake of appearances so the board can say “we had an open process.”

The open process should be about the direction of the Bank as it is refashioned into an organization for the 21st Century, what’s needed to get there, and what the owners of the Bank are prepared to do to help the new president deliver that result.