In the wake of Jeffrey Sachs’ unprecedented open candidacy for World Bank president comes important news that developing country economists may also join the race: former minister of finance for Colombia and former senior UN official José Antonio Ocampo, and Nigerian finance minister and former high level World Bank official Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. (Okonjo-Iweala is denying she will seek the position.) If this happens, in a similarly public way, as it appears it will, this will be a huge and irreversible step forward for World Bank governance reform. It would be a leap closer towards what the World Bank’s members have officially adopted as their preference for choosing the Bank’s leader: an open, merit-based process. A contest, of sorts, between Ocampo and Sachs (and perhaps Okonjo-Iweala) – presumably with developing country support behind them – would be a sea change from the Bank’s past practice of putting the U.S.’ (and the Global North’s) interests first in selecting presidents, with developing countries excluded. The succession this time is far different than in 2005, for example, when the Bush administration simply declared that Paul Wolfowitz would helm the Bank, to howls of protest but no known alternative nominees.
The Obama administration is now in a bind, facing the prospect of missing the March 23 nomination deadline as it scrambles to find a candidate that won’t be too offensive, or look especially unqualified next to two (or three) economists with experience in economic development in developing countries. That certainly leaves out Larry Summers, who reportedly is opposed even within the G7, and the administration’s other rumored options, such as UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who also may have other career goals in mind.
All this shows the importance of what Sachs has done with his campaign, unprecedented in both its openness and its calls for reform. Sachs has said all along that he welcomes other candidates, and a merit-based process. Due in large part to his campaign, it’s something of a new ball game.
There’s a long way to go before the World Bank presidency process is truly democratic. The one-dollar/one-vote system of governance ensures that the U.S. and other rich countries have disproportionate weight in making these and other important decisions. But it is clear that Sachs – and Ocampo and Okonjo-Iweala, if he indeed is joined by them – have won considerable gains in forcing open this process.