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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.