Since the formation of the World Bank in 1944, a gentlemen's agreement has been in place that gifts the presidency to an American citizen, just as a European traditionally takes the helm of the International Monetary Fund. On Monday, the Bank's Executive Board will decide who will replace current President, Robert Zoellick - and for the first time a real possibility exists that the appointment will be made on the grounds of merit rather than tradition. This is a cause for celebration, and a real opportunity for the board to ensure that the bank's mission - to fight poverty overseas - is led by someone with first-hand experience of doing just that.
Three excellent candidates have been put forward, all of whom have strong leadership skills and are familiar with development issues. Obama's nominee, Jim Yong Kim, although a US citizen, was born in South Korea and has worked as director of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization. The Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has worked at the top levels of the World Bank and is supported by the whole of the African Union. Jose Antonio Ocampo is former UN Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs and former finance minister of Colombia - credited with steering that country through the worst of the various financial crises that have struck Latin America.
The choice is a critical one, with wide-reaching implications for poor men, women and children around the world. There are just three years to go until the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. We have made enormous progress in recent years in cutting child and maternal deaths and getting children into school. A cause for hope. But to hit the targets will take an enormous push. Whoever the Board chooses will have enormous responsibility to lead this charge to accelerate change to lift millions of people from extreme poverty, hunger and disease.
The best new leader will ensure that bank is ambitious, accountable and has the interests of the world's poorest people and children at its heart. Hands-on experience of fighting poverty in a developing country, and an understanding of the complexities and opportunities involved, would be an enormous help.
The next president will need to lead the organisation in a changed world. There has been great progress in reducing poverty but huge challenges remain - from global hunger, to climate change, to increasing inequality. It will be imperative to involve developing countries in the Bank's decision-making - and to ensure that reforms continue which make the organisation more democratic, more accountable, and more reflective of a new global order.
There are persistent outrages that the new president should put at the top of their to do list. It is unacceptable that a child born in Niger is 30 times more likely to die in infancy than a child in the UK. That in 2012 so many children still die from diarrhoea and pneumonia - an upset tummy and a chesty cough. That 170 million children never grow up to fulfil their potential because they are stunted before their second birthday through lack of nutritious food. And that so many children never go to school, while many more that do get a poor quality education.
To begin to banish these inequalities and injustices, the new president will have to work with national governments to prioritise sustainable growth and investment in people, especially in health and education. And to promote and protect national assets and services that serve all populations equally, including a clean environment.
All three candidates have the experience to take on these challenges. But Ngozi and Ocampo's work in developing countries place them particularly well to lead a more effective World Bank.
The Economist put it well recently when it said, "When economists from the World Bank visit poor countries to dispense cash and advice, they routinely tell governments to reject cronyism and fill each important job with the best candidate available. It is good advice. The World Bank should take it."
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