Friday, March 18, 2005

[Global Poverty] A poor choice for the World Bank

Editorial comment - Financial Times
March 18 2005 02:00

George W. Bush, like the Bourbons, learns nothing and forgets nothing. That is how the rest of the world will view the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank. To put the unilateralist architect of the Iraq war in charge of the world's premier multilateral development agency is, many must think, to put a fox in charge of the chicken coop. The nomination does not lack merit. Yet it is objectionable, all the same.

The proposed move of Mr Wolfowitz to the bank has a historical parallel: that of Robert McNamara, US defence secretary at the time of the Vietnam war and bank president from 1968 to 1981. Mr McNamara, like Mr Wolfowitz, was a brilliant man. Mr McNamara, like Mr Wolfowitz, was tarnished by his association with an unpopular war.

Mr McNamara went on to be a dominating and, in many respects, successful head of the bank. Might the same be true of Mr Wolfowitz? That is far from impossible. He is highly intelligent, with wide experience in US public service, not least as US ambassador to Indonesia, the third most populous developing country. He could also expect strong support from the US administration, an invaluable asset for any president of the World Bank.

Not least, the bank needs a head who is tough-minded and willing to set priorities. Mr Wolfowitz is likely to prove considerably superior in these respects to James Wolfensohn, the outgoing incumbent. Mr Wolfowitz is also a far better choice than A.W. (Tom) Clausen, Barber Conable and Lewis Preston, the ineffectual presidents selected by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Yet Mr Wolfowitz is far from the outstanding candidate that the world needs. That he has no financial experience is relatively unimportant. More significant is his lack of experience in the complexities of development.

Yet his biggest drawbacks lie elsewhere. Mr Wolfowitz's comments on the likely costs of the Iraq war and prospective popularity of the invading forces in Iraq put his judgment in question. But, above all, the world would view a bank directed by Mr Wolfowitz as no more than an instrument of US power and US priorities. Every piece of advice the bank gave and condition it set would be made illegitimate, in the eyes of recipients, by the perception that it served the interests of the world's "sole superpower". The impact on the bank's legitimacy would be hugely damaging.

Alas, the Europeans are in a poor position to protest over the process, since they have been so adamant over retaining their right to nominate the head of the International Monetary Fund. They could seek to veto the appointment, as the US vetoed that of Caio Koch-Weser, the German nominee to the Fund, in 2000. But a veto would create vast ill will in the US. More important, it would be far too easy for Mr Bush to put forward a much worse candidate than Mr Wolfowitz. It would be politically impossible for the Europeans to cast a veto twice.

The Europeans should, instead, express dismay over both this candidacy and the lack of consultation that preceded it. The principal vehicle for tackling global poverty should, they must stress, never have been treated as a consolation prize for a disappointed official. Above all, the Europeans should tell the US to obtain the support of developing countries before they, too, accept it. It may now be too late to change the outcome. But the US does at least need to know that a bank that is too visibly subordinated to narrow US objectives will be ineffective, because it will be illegitimate.