US President Donald Trump’s nomination of his Treasury Undersecretary David Malpass to become President of the World Bank Group and CEO of the World Bank should be seen more as an opportunity than a problem by African leaders and other major borrowers.
By one scenario the US could still secure a majority vote for their nominee, as they have in every Bank presidential election since the institution’s founding in 1944. But this shouldn’t be viewed as cast in stone given how threadbare previously staunch relationships have become, mainly due to Trump’s erratic behaviour. Even the US’s European allies, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, have shown a willingness to publicly criticise Trump and his policies in ways not heard since World War II.
Added to this are concerns about Trump’s misguided views – shared by Malpass – that multilateral institutions are hostile to US interests. As New York Council on Foreign Relations expert Stewart Patrick argues, Malpass’s appointment could undermine the Bank’s invaluable work around the globe.
So, could his nomination be blocked and how?
There are four reasons why opposing Trump’s nominee may be easier than it first appears.
Opposing Trump’s choice
The first reason is that Trump may not survive in office much longer. His polling numbers remain at historic lows. His legal problems continue to escalate and evident to voters. And with the Democrats now in control of the US House of Representatives, they have subpoena powers to investigate allegations of Trump’s illicit actions and conflicts of interest, adding to his political vulnerabilities.
Secondly, reforms in nominating and appointing Bank presidents in 2011 opened up the process for the first time in 2012. Then there were three finalist, Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Columbian Jose Antonio Ocampo and US candidate Jim Yong Kim.
In the end Kim got the job on the back of then President Barack Obama’s nomination. It’s useful to note that both Kim and Obama enjoyed far more international support than Malpass and Trump today.
Thirdly, an important precedent was set last year when Trump’s candidate to head the Bank’s International Organisation for Migration was rejected by United Nations (UN) members. The main reason was that his anti-Muslim statements were judged antithetical to its policies of inclusion. It was an unprecedented rejection – the office had been led by Americans since the 1960s.
Rejecting Malpass would be a second victory for those who believe all senior world leadership posts should be decided on merit and more inclusive representation.
The last reason that there’s hope in rejecting Malpass is that the power dynamics in the bank have changed dramatically in the last nearly 80 years. The US has always justified its power to select the president on the grounds that it was the bank’s largest shareholder.
This was true when the bank began operations in the 1940s. Then the US held 35.07% among just 38 members. Today, the bank belongs to 193 countries and the US voting share is 15.98%.
Nevertheless, denying the US a voting majority is challenging. The president of the bank is selected by 25 directors, most representing regional groups. America’s traditional allies, UK, France, Germany and Japan control 18.48% and there is a long-running understanding that for their support of America’s candidates for the bank, the US will reciprocate by supporting a European to head the International Monetary Fund.
But this is no longer necessarily a fail-safe for America. Trump has tense relations with many US allies. And directors representing groups of African, Latin American and Asian countries may find majorities of their members willing to oppose the US.
Voting scenarios suggest blocking Malpass is politically possible. But, to pull it off would require positive, deliberative and inclusive action.
The nominations period began on 7 February and close on 14 March. Malpass was the first entry, with Trump presumably hoping to discourage competition. With just weeks remaining, any member who wants to nominate one of their nationals should be encouraged to do so.
Names of potential candidates already raised in media reports include Donald Kaberuka of Rwanda, Sri Mulyani Indrawati of Indonesia. Others are 2012 finalists, Ocampo and Okonjo Iweala. Others deserving consideration from Africa, Asia and Latin America might well be waiting in the wings.
The US is likely to argue that to ensure a smooth transition, a new president should be named prior to the 9-14 April 2019 annual meeting of World Bank members in Washington.
But this is no longer an issue. Under the 2011 reforms there is now an interim president, the highly regarded Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria. She is fully capable of managing the bank while all candidates are carefully vetted for their personal integrity and professional achievements.
The search for a new head of the bank should also allow for input from the many large national and international civil society organisations that are its vital partners.
A leader the World Bank needs
Malpass need not be denigrated, notwithstanding his negative views of multilateralism and lack of any positive agenda for the World Bank. What’s more important is that a consensus candidate is found who has the necessary skills and practical ideas for the bank to better support much needed programmes in Africa and other countries.
There are also huge infrastructure needs the bank can address. And it needs quick response capabilities to help countries cope with sudden natural disasters and pandemics.
If a search driven by these concerns succeeds, then bank supporters can thank Trump for unwittingly encouraging their efforts.