Give the World Bank presidency to Jeffrey Sachs, says Mehdi Hasan

Mr Obama: Don't disappoint.

If it's going to be an American again, he's the best man for the job.

From the BBC:

Candidates to be the next president of the World Bank are being announced as the deadline for nominees approaches.

Three African countries have endorsed the nomination of Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

If only. Okonjo-Iweala doesn't stand a chance. Nor does the former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, who is also said to be considering throwing his hat in the ring before the deadline closes this evening.

The whole thing is a stitch-up. When it comes to the IMF and the World Bank, the "international community" is an irrelevance. The "tradition" is for an American to head the World Bank and a European - currently France's Christine Lagarde - to run the IMF. The "Global South", representing 157 of a total of 184 recognized states in the world, as well as the vast majority of the world's inhabitants, and on the receiving end of most World Bank policies, doesn't get a look in. It's shameful - and undemocratic.

But that's the way it is. The next World Bank president will be an American, not a Nigerian or a Colombian. The question is: which American?

Larry Summer's name is the one most often mentioned in the press. The heart sinks. He would be a bad, bad choice. Despite being one of the world's most famous and "respected" economists, Summers, former chief economic adviser to President Obama, is timid and over-cautious (see Ron Suskind's Confidence Men), compromised by his close ties to Wall Street and has never fully accounted for his dismal failure of judgement on financial deregulation during the Clinton years.

The Huff Po's Mark Gongloff puts it best:

What exactly does Larry Summers have to do to stop being offered important jobs? Hold up a liquor store? Kill a guy?

That is the question many are asking, or at least should be asking, about Summers' reported candidacy to be the next president of the World Bank.

. . . Even if you give Summers a pass on his bad advice to the president, there are plenty of other reasons to oppose his nomination to the World Bank. His interpersonal skills fall somewhere on the scale between honey badger and Yosemite Sam with a urinary tract infection. He has a paleolithic attitude about women. As a World Bank economist, he once signed off on a memo that suggested, apparently in a Swiftian way, dumping toxic waste in poor countries.

Then there's the head of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi, who is also said to be in the running. Despite there being a certain appeal to appointing a woman who was born in India to run the World Bank, the simple fact of the matter is that putting a $14-million-per-year corporate boss, with no background or record in development, in charge of the institution tasked with fighting global poverty would continue to send all the wrong signals. (Outgoing Bank chief Robert Zoellick is a former managing director of Goldman Sachs!)

My preferred US candidate would be economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, author of The End of Poverty and former director of the UN Millennium Project and special advisor, between 2002 and 2006, to then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals. Sachs has all the right qualifications - and he wants the job too!

As the BBC reported earlier this month:

[P]overty campaigner and development economist Prof Jeffrey Sachs is making a very public bid for the nomination.

No-one has ever done this before, and it has created huge media and public interest.

It is not just that Prof Sachs wants the job, he is also openly critical of the outgoing Mr Zoellick and how the bank has been run.

Sitting in his Manhattan townhouse, Bolivian and African art on the walls, Prof Sachs explains that the job of leading the World Bank should be given to a development expert.

"The inside process has produced 11 out of 11 politically-orientated appointments," he says.

"Not one of them has been a development professional... It has been seven bankers, three defence or military officials, and one congressman."

Prof Sachs says that after 27 years dedicated to fighting hunger, poverty and disease in developing countries, he is uniquely qualified to run the World Bank.

As head of the Earth Institute at prestigious Columbia University, and as an adviser to the UN and numerous governments, he has "walked the villages of the world".

I've had the privilege of meeting Sachs. He is a brilliant, passionate and decent human being; an optimist who believes extreme poverty can be eliminated on a global scale. He is eloquent and combative, and not afraid of speaking his mind or standing up to governments - including his own. Best of all, he isn't a politician or a banker - he is a genuine expert in development economics.

Yes, his association with "shock therapy" in Russia two decades go will continue to haunt and taint him (though Sachs has offered a personal defence/rebuttal here) and I admit to losing a little respect for him more recently when he came out in favour of George Osborne's deficit reduction plan. But we can't make the perfect the enemy of the good. Plus, Sachs's contribution to the New Statesman's "Plan B" special issue on the economy, last October, shows he is no simple-minded, right-wing austerity junkie.

He wrote:

It was and is important to get deficits under control. But in this deficit-cutting process, both the US and the UK need greater investment as well, notably in human capital, infrastructure and science and technology.

As these are key, I would urge budgetary adjustment that emphasises cuts in wasteful spending (for instance, I am urging the US to end its costly and ineffective military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq) but raises spending meaningfully on investment in primary, secondary and higher education, skills development, modernised infrastructure, low-carbon energy systems and other high priorities, backed by higher tax revenues collected efficiently and equitably, especially from the top tier of income and wealth distribution.

In the same NS article, he also called on Osborne, for whom he acts as a "personal" adviser on development-related issues, to sign up to a global "financial transactions" - or "Robin Hood" - tax and to push the US government to get onboard - something anti-poverty campaigners have been dreaming of for some years now. Imagine the impact of Sachs using the office of the World Bank president to make the same call!

It's been said that Sachs doesn't stand a chance: he is "not under consideration even for the short-list", according to an unnamed US official cited in the BBC report. The US government holds the most votes at the World Bank, so it tends to get what it wants. But Sachs does have the public backing of Kenya, Haiti, Jordan, Malaysia and East Timor; he needs to start persuading other African and Asian governments to come out in support of him too and make some noise on his behalf. There is no point such countries rallying around candidates who aren't Americans. Sachs, at least, is.

It isn't over till it's over. This is an important moment for the world economy; if, against the odds, Sachs got the top job at the World Bank, it could make all the difference to the lives of millions of poor Africans, Asians and south Americans. Writing on Comment is Free on 8 March, US economist and commentator Mark Weisbrot argued:

New leadership at the bank could pull the institution away from enforcing harmful practices. . .

The bank could also play a positive role by increased financing of urgent development needs such as health, education, and sustainable agriculture. In these areas, Jeffrey Sachs has a proven track record over the past decade. He has played an important role in supporting the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has saved millions of lives in poor countries. His Millennium Villages project has also provided a significant positive example of how development aid can be used to boost agricultural productivity and health outcomes. This is an important refutation of the widespread cynicism that helps limit the financing of real, positive development aid.

Sachs has also been a strong advocate for debt cancellation in poor countries. His 2008 book Common Wealth provides one of the best overviews of the interrelated problems of climate change, development, poverty, population and health - as well as a set of concrete proposals for addressing them. This is clearly someone who has the knowledge, ideas, and experience to lead the bank in a different direction. He has also been a strong advocate of debt cancellation for poor countries.

Of course the appointment of Sachs wouldn't end global poverty - or the World Bank's "harmful practices" in the developing world - overnight. There is no silver bullet on offere here. The structural - and political problems - will persist. But it would send the right message and would, for the very first time, allow someone with a passion for, and expertise in, development to set the priorities and agenda for one of the world's most important institutions.

Mr Obama - give the job to Jeffrey Sachs. Don't disappoint us - again.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder