The Multilateralist

A qualified defense of national privilege

Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development is convinced that the World Bank selection process can be a genuine competition. With three official candidates in the running–Jim Young Kim of the United States, Colombia’s Jose Antonio Ocampo, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria–Barder insists that the outcome is not foreordained: [F]or the first time ever there ...

Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development is convinced that the World Bank selection process can be a genuine competition. With three official candidates in the running–Jim Young Kim of the United States, Colombia’s Jose Antonio Ocampo, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria–Barder insists that the outcome is not foreordained:

[F]or the first time ever there is a genuine contest. In previous years other shareholders were faced with the choice of accepting or rejecting the US nominee. This time round, with three serious candidates to choose from, it is not clear that the US nominee has to win. The other shareholders should now take a moment to consult, and assess which candidate they think is best for the job; and it is very important that they should do so in an accountable way, for the sake of the integrity of this appointment and for the future of the governance of international institutions.

But Barder acknowledges that for anyone other than Kim to prevail, Europe–or at least parts of Europe–will have to break ranks with Washington:

An appointment requires an 85% super-majority of the votes of the Board; this means that the US can veto an appointment, but it also means that a candidate could be blocked by a coalition of three European directors plus the nominating constituency of one of the candidates; or by any four of the directors from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.  In other words, if the European shareholders choose to act together they have at least as much power as the United States to block an appointment. 

That kind of European move is much less plausible than it sounds. First, the EU countries normally coordinate closely on World Bank and IMF matters. Second, Europe as a whole has a powerful vested interest in backing Washington: doing so maximizes the chances that Washington will back Europe’s continued hold on the top spot at the International Monetary Fund.

Leaving aside the voting geometry, Barder and other critics of great-power privilege at the Bank glide over an important substantive issue. They too easily assume that a) an open, meritocratic process is the likely alternative to American privilege and that b) there is no link between great-power privilege and the effectiveness of the institution. It seems to me that both of these assumptions are debatable.

The end of Washington’s grip on the World Bank presidency would not necessarily usher in a new era of meritocracy at the Bank; it might simply introduce more elaborate national horsetrading. As long as states–rather than, say, a panel of independent experts–are doing the voting, that kind of gamesmanship is inevitable, as practice in other international organizations suggests. No one country has a lock on the post of UN Secretary-General, for example, but few would claim that process is about merit rather than politics. Contested elections for international judgeships are also not known for their attention to qualifications. As a recent book has argued, these processes are often much more about swapping votes than scrutinizing resumes.

Nor is it clear that a World Bank run by the most qualified individual conceivable would be more effective than a Bank run by an American. The simple truth is that major powers, and certainly superpowers, must stay invested in multilateral organizations, and their investment (financial and normative) is not a given. The United States is a World Bank funder, not a borrower. Its strategic interests in the Bank’s activities and success may be real, but they are diffuse and not always easy to articulate. Having an American World Bank chief eases relations with Congress and helps ensure that Washington remains engaged with the project. Current president Robert Zoellick apparently played a very helpful role in persuading Congress to support the Bank’s recent quota increase.

Those conversations on the Hill would likely be quite different if a Nigerian or Colombian headed the institution. Yes, the United States would still have the largest voting share and the capacity to block major Bank decisions. But the ability to say no is not the same as the desire to say yes.  The Bank requires regular, voluntary replenishments to keep its fund for the poorest countries operating. The United States has typically been a leading contributor, but that support is not a given. Any decrease in American enthusiasm for the institution might send an important signal to other major powers, and particularly to those emerging powers who are already lukewarm about the Bank. For major powers, in particular, working through the Bank is a choice. Almost all of these countries have their own bilateral aid programs, and they could easily decide to give those greater emphasis. This dynamic may be unfair, misguided, even petty. But it is a reality that any advocate of an effective Bank must consider.

I don’t mean to argue that we are stuck with a system in which merit has no place. But it is possible to pursue merit more and less conscientiously even within a system of national privilege. Other Bank stakeholders should pressure, cajole, and even shame Washington into picking an individual with real merit and skill. Even if it is fundamentally a charade, the open nomination process that the Bank is now employing may be doing just that. In Kim, President Obama has nominated someone with a demonstrated commitment to combating poverty, experience in international organizations, and leadership credentials. My guess–and it’s only a guess–is that knowing that the American candidate would be compared to others affected the White House’s selection process.

When Kim prevails, as he will, there will be gnashing of teeth from those convinced that  the process wasn’t fair and that it didn’t produce the best outcome for the Bank. They’ll be right on the first count, at least.

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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