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Zoellick to the Rescue?

Will newly anointed World Bank President Robert Zoellick be able to get the organization back on its feet after the catastrophic failed presidency of Paul Wolfowitz? Although hardly a megawatt star of the Bob Rubin category, he certainly brings some positive attributes to the job.

First, as a key player in bringing China into the World Trade Organization, Zoellick is a proven internationalist in an American administration where internationalists have sometimes seemed like an endangered species. Second, he is a firm believer in the power of markets and free trade, which have clearly done far more to alleviate poverty over the past half-century than any aid program. Third, he seems to have been a consistent behind-the-scenes supporter of the Bank, whereas many of his Bush administration colleagues would be just as happy to see it shut down and its Washington headquarters turned into private condominiums and offices. So presumably he has a constructive vision for the Bank’s future.

But Zoellick is not without his weaknesses. First and foremost, his appointment extends the embarrassingly outmoded practice of always installing an American in the job. With the Bank tirelessly preaching the merits of good governance, its failure to adopt democratic principles undercuts its own legitimacy. The claim that the World Bank needs an American president to ensure that the US keeps donating money is ridiculous. The annual cost of the US contribution to the World Bank, even taking into account off-the-books loan guarantees, is relatively minor. Any number of developing countries, from China to India to Brazil, could easily step up if the US foolishly stepped down.

Zoellick’s background as a lawyer hardly makes him perfect for the job, either. The World Bank presidency is not about negotiating treaties, as Zoellick did when he was US Trade Representative. The Bank’s most important role in development today is as a “knowledge bank” that helps aggregate, distill, and disseminate best practices from around the world. In this respect, the Bank’s technical assistance to governments is very similar to what private consultants offer to companies.