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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.