President Obama has a historic opportunity to help reform the World Bank, by nominating development expert Jeffrey Sachs to be the World Bank’s next president. Sachs has said that as president he would sharpen the focus of the Bank on achieving the Millennium Development Goals for reducing poverty and extending access to health care and education. Coming from Sachs, this pledge is “change you can believe in,” because for years Sachs has a leading international advocate of efforts to achieve the world’s poverty reduction goals, currently serving as an adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Now Members of the U.S. Congress are starting to speak up.
Michigan Representative John Conyers is circulating a letter to President Obama, urging him to nominate Sachs. Signers of the letter so far include Reps. Hansen Clarke, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren, Jim McGovern, Lynn Woolsey, Raul Grijalva, and Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Many Members of the U.S. Congress have worked closely with Sachs for years on initiatives to cancel the crushing external debt burden of poor countries; end the World Bank’s imposition of user fees that block access to primary health care and education; compel the World Bank to make grants, rather than loans, in the poorest countries; compel the World Bank to support efforts to make essential medicines available in poor countries; and other pressing development challenges. It is natural that these Members of Congress should support Sachs’ candidacy.
Sachs’ public and worldwide campaign to lead the World Bank is unprecedented, but is entirely appropriate to our time. Until now, the leadership of the World Bank has been determined behind closed doors by the U.S. Treasury Department and European finance ministries.
But Sachs has taken his case to the public, announcing his candidacy with an op-ed in the Washington Post and with an interview on CNN. His candidacy is supported by Kenya, East Timor, Malyasia, and Jordan.
Since the World Bank was founded, no-one has ever tried to “campaign” for the position of President by trying to get support from the public and from developing countries. That already creates a different dynamic, suggesting that public opinion matters, and that the opinions of developing countries matter.
But Sachs is also trying to get the support of the Obama administration, and that’s why – from the point of view of reform activism in the U.S. – Rep. Conyers’ letter is so important. The default case — in the absence of public and Congressional engagement — would likely be that the administration choice would be largely determined by the interests of Wall Street. The two names most cited in press speculation have been Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. Both Summers and Geithner can be expected to prioritize Wall Street interests — that’s why their names dominate press speculation. Of course, implementing the Millenium Development Goals isn’t at the top of Wall Street’s agenda.
If Congress and the U.S. public want something different, the time to speak up is now, before the Obama administration announces its choice. This is the time of maximum influence. If you have an address in the U.S., you can ask your Representative to sign Conyers letter in support of Sachs’ nomination here.
If you aren’t in the U.S., you should be pressing your own government to nominate a candidate. Of course, I am campaigning for Sachs, so I would be delighted if you would press your government to nominate Sachs.
But if you are outside the U.S., and you press your government to nominate *some* candidate, I would *still* be delighted, regardless of who the candidate is. If we want to have an “open, merit-based process,” then we need “open, merit-based” candidates. We can’t have an open process in a world sense if no country besides the U.S. is willing to nominate anyone.
At some point, it’s not good enough to complain that U.S. Treasury is once again trying to hog all the cookies. If we want to make an issue of it, someone else has to make a dash for the cookies.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.