The non-Americans: A who’s who of non-US candidates for the World Bank’s top job

Who do you think would be the best non-US candidate? Participate in the poll here

While much of the media coverage since Jim Yong Kim’s resignation has fixated on who the Trump Administration will pick as its nominee for World Bank president (see here for odds of favourites – including US passport holders Indra Nooyi, David Malpass, Ray Washburne, Dame Nemat Minouche Shafik and Dina Powell), the notion that it’s time for a non-American to lead the Bank has increasingly entered the public discourse as the Bank nears its 75th birthday, with a number of op-eds calling for an end to the American monopoly of the Bank’s presidency (for examples, see here, here and here).

Let’s be frank: the odds still favour the appointment of an American nominee. But a less-than-satisfactory US nominee could put pressure on key Bank shareholders who have historically supported the US-backed candidate (namely Japan and European shareholders, with the latter supporting the US nominee in return for a European remaining at the helm of the IMF). Any member of the executive board will be able to nominate candidates from 7 Feb. The lingering question is, will non-US executive directors dare?

Civil society has long favoured an open application process; after Kim’s resignation, the World Bank’s staff also backed this demand. However, as the Board has made clear that candidates need to be nominated by executive directors, this will limit the scope of how ‘open’ and ‘transparent’ the process actually is.

In lieu of a completely open process, the nomination of a large number of qualified candidates by World Bank executive directors is the next best thing; yet, whispers from DC suggest this is unlikely, and that various members of the Board are angling for the ‘least bad’ US nominee.

Nevertheless, this post tries to prompt a fresh discussion about non-US candidates – in case we enter a bizarro world where the WBG presidency is actually decided on ‘merit’ (however interpreted), rather than cold-war era, Machiavellian political wrangling. Who are the most obvious non-American candidates who might be nominated by Board members other than the US? Who has escaped the media spotlight thus far and deserves consideration?

Below is an offering of a handful of the obvious non-US contenders, in addition to speculation about some ‘dark horse’ candidates whose appointment – though unlikely – could bring fresh ideas to the institution, and might even – heaven forbide! – help re-align its mandate towards ‘people-focused development’, rather than promotion of development finance in service of the private sector.

Who do you think should be considered? Respond to the poll below, and add your own ideas of non-American candidates in the comments section!

The interim:

Kristalina Georgieva (Bulgaria): The Bank’s erstwhile CEO, who will be interim president from 1 Feb, is considered a safety valve by some if the process of appointing Kim’s successor goes sideways. Already responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the Bank, Georgieva certainly meets the criteria set out by the Board for the role; she has championed putting women in leadership positions since becoming CEO and has – among other priorities – supported recent commitments to increase the Bank’s climate change adaptation finance. Despite being viewed as a safe pair of hands, however, it’s unlikely that Georgieva would reverse the Bank’s current direction of travel, including the controversial Maximising Finance for Development initiative.

The past nominees:

Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela (Nigeria) and Jose Antonio Ocampo (Colombia) both challenged Jim Yong Kim for the WBG presidency in 2012 and were widely viewed as more qualified candidates than Kim, despite the latter’s eventual appointment. Conceivably, one or both could re-enter the fray when the period for formal nominations begins, with Okonjo-Iwaela recently announcing, “I will run for World Bank President if nominated”.

Okonjo-Iwaela currently chairs the board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI). As noted previously in this blog: ‘Between 2007 and 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was a Managing Director at the World Bank. … She previously held roles as a finance minister and a foreign minister in the Nigerian government, the first woman to hold either of these roles. In 2005 Okonjo-Iweala led negotiations with the Paris Club bilateral donors, securing a $18 billion debt write-off for Nigeria to alleviate Nigeria’s debt-servicing difficulties.’ Despite these impressive credentials, in the past civil society has been critical of Okonjo-Iwaela’s neoliberal views.

Ocampo, meanwhile, co-chairs the board of Colombia’s central bank and is also chair of the UN Committee for Development Policy. As was pointed out when he was nominated for the presidency in 2012, Ocampo has varied relevant experience as a policymaker (as Colombia’s former finance minister), a civil servant (he was head of UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean [ECLAC], among other positions), and as an academic, being a well-respected economist in his own right. In 2012, Ocampo conceded in an ultimately futile attempt to bolster Okonjo-Iwaela’s candidacy.

Other heavy-weight contenders:

Names that come to mind include Sri Mulyani Indrawati (Indonesia) and Trevor Manuel (South Africa) – who have both drawn mention in recent media reports, as well as past WBG presidential selection processes. Indrawati has been Indonesia’s Minister of Finance since 2016, having also held the role from 2005-2010; she was also previously a World Bank managing director from 2010-2016, and recently chaired the World Bank’s influential Development Committee for two years, with her term ending in October. Manuel was South Africa’s Minister of Finance from 1996-2009, and was mooted as a possible WBG president candidate in 2007 and 2012. Like Indrawati, he is a former chair of the Bank’s Development Committee, among other prominent posts.

Michelle Bachelet (Chile) was suggested as a potential candidate in 2012, and was again named as possible nominee in a recent guest op-ed published in the FT by Boston University professor Kevin Gallagher. Bachelet, twice elected president of Chile, is certainly qualified for the role, but one wonders whether she would seriously consider it, given that she was only recently appointed as the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in August.

Another name that was floated in 2012, and has emerged again in recent reports, is Justin Yifu Lin (China), the first Chinese chief economist of the World Bank from 2008 to 2012. The Trump Administration hasn’t been shy about viewing the Bank as a proxy site of its trade war with China – with World Bank financing for China being a key point of contention in the US’s support for the Bank’s general capital increase last year. However, it seems unlikely that China would seek to directly challenge the US’s nomination, given a Chinese-backed appointment is likely to rankle Trump (and possibly Europeans and Japanese executive directors, as well). Nevertheless, in a world where the World Bank’s selection process for its presidency is actually merit-based, it’s conceivable Lin would receive strong consideration.

A recent Wall Street Journal profile of the WBG president race named an additional non-American possibility: Suma Chakrabarti (UK). Chakrabarti has been the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for the past six years. He was born in India and is now a British citizen. While seen as a strong candidate, EBRD’s recent support for fossil fuel projects with Chakrabarti at the helm, such as the controversial Southern Gas Corridor, has drawn the ire of European civil society groups.

On the fringe – looking beyond the usual suspects

Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica) – climate change, and more specifically the eventual US nominee’s support for the World Bank’s recent climate commitments, may become one of the key issues of the selection process. Would the EDs 18 executive director – a constituency which includes Spain and Costa Rica, which have recently introduced ambitious national climate change plans – consider nominating a climate champion such as Figueres, the former head of UNFCCC from 2010-2016? Although such a move would risk openly antagonising the US administration, which has announced its intent to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, with climate scientists indicating we have just 11 years to avoid catastrophic climate change, the Bank’s pro-climate shareholders don’t have the luxury of waiting out the term of a US-backed nominee who would undermine this area of the Bank’s work.

Danilo Astori (Uruguay) – Astori is the Uruguayan Minister of Economy and Finance, having previously held the position from 2005-2008. He was Uruguay’s Vice President from 2010-2015. Astori has pursued fiscal conservatism, mixed with increased spending on welfare, education and health. He has also supported trade deals with the US, EU, China and India. In short, Astori’s support for ‘globalisation with a human face’ might appeal to a Bank that has been struggling to define its role and relevance over the past decade.

Alicia Bárcena (Mexico) – Bárcena is currently the Executive Secretary of ECLAC, a role she has held since 2008. She has actively promoted sustainable development finance while at ECLAC and has previously held prominent roles with the UNEP and UNDP. Her hypothetical appointment could pave the way for the Bank pivoting its activities to be more genuinely aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular, and other UN bodies, in general.

Winnie Byanyima (Uganda) – Byanyima is currently the executive director of Oxfam International, and has been a fixture of official events at the World Bank and IMF Spring and Annual Meetings in recent years. A former Ugandan MP, Byanyima has developed a reputation for challenging the policy prescriptions that are at the root of the global inequality crisis, and as a strong advocate for women’s rights, democratic governance and peace-building.

Gita Sen (India) – Sen is an Indian feminist scholar and has a long track record of working on poverty, human development, labour markets, gender equality and population policies. She was the first chairperson of the World Bank’s External Gender Consultative Group and is adjunct professor at Harvard University and distinguished professor & director at the Ramalingaswami Centre on Equity & Social Determinants of Health at the Public Health Foundation of India. She is also a Professor Emeritus at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, and the General Coordinator of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era.

Note: this post has been corrected to reflect that the US does not have a veto over the World Bank President’s appointment by the Board, as previously stated.


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2 thoughts on “The non-Americans: A who’s who of non-US candidates for the World Bank’s top job

  1. Pingback: 'America First' Comes to the World Bank | World Bank President

  2. I don’t think the US has a veto over board decisions – its voting share allows it to block any changes to the articles of agreement (the Bank’s constitution) but the Articles only say this about selecting the President:

    “The Executive Directors shall select a President who shall not be a governor or an executive director or an alternate for either. The President shall be Chairman of the Executive Directors, but shall have no vote except a deciding vote in case of an equal division. He may participate in meetings of the Board of Governors, but
    shall not vote at such meetings. The President shall cease to hold office when the Executive Directors so decide.”

    In practice the EDs want to appoint the President by consensus – so any ED (or group of EDs) could make the appointment of any candidate difficult, not just the US.

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