Is Okonjo-Iweala the ‘establishment choice’ for the World Bank?

Is Okonjo-Iweala the ‘establishment choice’ for the World Bank?

On his FP blog today, Stephen Walt writes:

"When Washington gets lucky and the African Union endorses a Nigerian economist with a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from MIT, who also has ample experience at the World Bank, and who is a woman of color to boot, the smart thing to do is get behind it immediately. This course is such an obvious no-brainer that I’m amazed the Obama administration didn’t leap at the opportunity."

As my former colleague Annie Lowrey writes in the Times, U.S. nominee Jim Yong Kim is still virtually assured victory because of the makeup of the World Bank’s governing board, but the fact that this three-way race is even taking place — José Antonio Ocampo of Columbia is also in the running — marks a historic shift. It’s also striking some of the voices most loudly advocating for the Bank to overturn half a century of tradition and nominate a non-American president, are some of the normally staunchest defenders of the economic status quo. 

The Economist editorializes

WHEN economists from the World Bank visit poor countries to dispense cash and advice, they routinely tell governments to reject cronyism and fill each important job with the best candidate available. It is good advice. The World Bank should take it.  In appointing its next president, the bank’s board should reject the nominee of its most influential shareholder, America, and pick Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Felix Salmon of Reuters chimes in

Kim is still the favorite for the job, just because he has the full and awesome power of US international diplomatic pressure behind him. But in any fair fight, Okonjo-Iweala would win. And if there are any signs at all that the European vote might not be completely in the bag, we might yet have a real contest on our hands here.

The Financial Times has tripled-down on its support for the Nigerian finance minister with an editorial, a column by Washington bureau chief Edward Luce, and a letter from economist Jagdish Baghwati supporting her candidacy. 

Nationality may play something of a role here. These are all British publications and mostly British authors — Bagwhati is Indian-American — whereas the New York Times and Businessweek have both editorialized for Kim. 

But supporting Okonjo-Iweala is also an easy "reformist" stance for economic conservatives to take. As these sources all note in their endorsements, Okonjo-Iweala is a fairly orthodox, free market, growth-oriented economist with a long institutional history at the bank. Kim, meanwhile, is an outsider and something of an unknown quantity: A public health expert with little background in economics whose book on inequality and health expresses skepticism about growth-led development and was favorably blurbed by Noam Chomsky. The Economist quips drily: "Were Mr Kim hoping to lead Occupy Wall Street, such views would be unremarkable."

While picking Okonjo-Iweala would of course be historic for bank– she’s non-American, a person of color, and along with Christine Lagarde of the IMF, would put women in charge of the world’s two main multilateral financial institutions. But from an ideological point of view, she may actually be the status-quo choice.