While the announcement of the resignation of American Jim Yong Kim from the World Bank presidency on Monday, January 7, took everyone by surprise, the resulting debate remained unsurprising. Very quickly, rumours began to circulate about his potential successor, with the usual share of hypotheses, sometimes serious, often extravagant. However, these hypotheses all had one thing in common: the American nationality of the candidates. Indeed, it is a well-known unwritten rule that the President of the World Bank must be an American. A tradition that reflected the world of the 20th century but is a distorting mirror of the realities of the 21st century.
When the World Bank was founded in 1944, the West dominated economic globalization, with the United States as architects of the new world order. In 1991, the fall of the USSR seemed to confirm the irrevocable victory of political and economic liberalism, enshrining the American hyperpower. At the dawn of the 21st century, Western donors and the Bretton Woods institutions were still dictating the way forward for the development of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Some observers have gone so far as to speak of the “end of history”…
How many certainties have been turned upside down in just under two decades! Asia has emerged as a new centre of the world economy, with China as the engine of growth. Beijing has also set itself up as an alternative to a breathless American order, where a certain “complicity diplomacy” – to use the words of French researcher Bertrand Badie – continued to keep the countries of the South out of the world’s management board. For its part, Africa is now the reservoir of global growth and the demographic giant of tomorrow. At the same time, the scourge of populism has proliferated in many countries around the world. With peoples blaming globalization for all evils, international institutions based on international cooperation and multilateralism are now exposed to many criticisms.
This geopolitical restructuring was logically accompanied by a crisis of legitimacy of the World Bank. Once an essential development institution, it is now experiencing a relative decline due to a combination of factors. First, access to financial markets has increased significantly in recent years for developing countries, offering them greater diversity in their sources of financing. During the same period, an increasing rejection of the Washington consensus took hold among elites and populations in developing countries, but also in developed countries, putting pressure on institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had never been so contested before.
In addition, and for the first time, the Americans have elected a president who openly criticizes multilateral institutions, advocating economic nationalism that is out of step with the pace of current globalization. In this context, under what pretext can we still accept that the President of the World Bank must necessarily be an American? Far be it from me to believe that no American has the right profile for the position, but I plead for an open competition where applications from all nationalities must be taken into account. What credibility can an international institution promoting good governance and transparency have with an opaque and unfair recruitment procedure? The World Bank must change the way its President is recruited if it is to maintain its appeal and credibility.
Because beyond the technical dimension of the post, the role of the President of the World Bank – who has the status of a quasi-Head of State – is eminently political. That is why I believe it is time for the World Bank to be led by someone from the African continent. Of all the World Bank’s fields of action, Africa is the one where the stakes are the highest: investment in infrastructure, poverty reduction, agricultural transformation, access to energy, rapid urbanization, human capital development… Not to mention the main challenge of this century, climate change, which is already affecting many African countries.
Investing in these countries and driving bold reforms requires a relationship of trust, which must now be rebuilt to break the image of arrogance that World Bank teams have sometimes sent back to their interlocutors. An African will be in a better position to encourage governments of developing countries to fight corruption or better manage their public debts without being accused of imperialism or neo-colonialism.
Choosing a candidate from a Southern country in a historically Northern institution also sends a strong message for a more balanced globalization, where each country can have a voice that counts on world affairs. Appointing an African to head the World Bank means recognizing the emergence of new powers in globalization and the need to address new missions such as safeguarding global public goods and conserving biodiversity. To fully enter the 21st century, the World Bank actually has no choice but to put an end to 75 years of “America First” and finally inaugurate the era of “World First”!