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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle