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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change