December 11, 2009
Bob Zoellick Atlantic Council

World Bank president  Robert Zoellick warned that we should be cautious in reforming the structure of  international economic institutions.  Making changes based on theoretical analysis while excluding the practical implications would have serious consequences.

Responding to a question from Council president and CEO Fred Kempe about a proposal to end the practice of preserving the World Bank presidency for an American and IMF for a European, Zoellick answered that "the decision of the members is to say it should be open, meritorious, every country and then it it’ll be up to the shareholders to decide how they want to implement that."  But, he wryly noted, "let’s not forget these are ultimately political decisions."  Noting the recent selection of the EU president and foreign minister and the choosing of a UN secretary general, he remarked that we should "be honest as opposed to coming up with some idea that we’re all going to go to Korn/Ferry and come up with a fine list and so on so forth."

Moreover, he warned,  I personally believe it’s very important for the United States to play an active role in the multilateral system and that isn’t always the case."  Indeed, "It’s always a challenge."  We need to consider that as "one of the factors," weighing how it "will affect the base of support in interest in the United States."   (This naturally brings to mind Lord Ismay's famous line about NATO's founding purpose as "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.")

Even if that obstacle were overcome, would a policy to "exclusively exclude Americans" really be a "merit-based process?"

Turning to a broader question by former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio on the need to make the World Bank more representative, Zoellick enthusiastically agreed.  He said that  "the so called Voice Reforms are critically important but they’re not sufficient."  He noted that the Bank had, under his leadership, added a 25th chair for Sub-Saharan African and have developing nations up to 44 percent of the voting shares and are pushing to bump that to 47 percent.  That said, "what’s probably more important than voting shares is actually seats at the table" including "bringing them at higher levels."

The end state of these reforms must be to stop "treating developing countries as clients."  Doing this will require a more fundamental shift in the thinking of the world's institutions.  At the World Bank in particular, "We have a very strong analytical capability, but one of the things I’m trying to work on is, it’s not enough to come to the table and analyze a problem, you have to solve the problem.  And sometimes the first, best analytical solution may not be the best problem solution given the political economy of the country."   Fixing this will depend on "how you develop those relationships with the partners."

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  Photo by Christine Mahler.

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