At the World Bank, competition for a change?

Developing nations may challenge the United States’ historic hold on the presidency of the World Bank and are discussing African and South American candidates to compete with whomever the Obama administration nominates.

More than a month after World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced he would step down when his term ends in June, the administration has yet to name its choice for the job. With the Friday deadline for nomination approaching, World Bank board members from developing countries have been caucusing over possible challengers and intend to make selection competitive, said Rogerio Studart, the Brazilian member of the bank’s 25-member executive board.

Studart said he is conferring with the nine countries he represents, including Colombia, about nominating Jose Antonio Ocampo, a professor at Columbia University who formerly served as Colombian finance minister and central bank governor.

South African executive director Renosi Mokate, who represents Nigeria on the executive board, may nominate Ni­ger­ian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, according to bank officials familiar with the nominating process. Okonjo-Iweala is a former top-ranking bank executive also receiving support from some Washington-based development experts.

Neither Okonjo-Iweala or Ocampo could be reached for comment.

Studart, however, said there was a strong sense among developing countries that the selection of Zoellick’s successor should involve a broader discussion about the bank’s future.

“Tell me what you want for the World Bank,” Studart said. “What kind of culture do you want to bring to this institution? What kind of changes to the organization? People are fixated on names and nationalities. We are fixated on making this an opportunity to make this an institution for the 21st century.”

The possibility of a developing world challenger to the White House nominee was reported on Wednesday by Reuters.

The White House had no comment Wednesday about the administration’s selection process. Speculation has centered on prominent figures like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who have declined to be considered. The possible selection of former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers faces a spate of online petitions from opponents who object to him in part because of remarks he made while president of Harvard questioning the aptitude of women for science and engineering.

The U.S. has by tradition named the president of the World Bank, which provides low-interest loans and grants to poor countries as well as market-rate loans to richer developing countries like China and Brazil.

That tradition, which similarly allows Europe to name the head of the International Monetary Fund, has come under increasing challenge from developing nations whose contributions to the global economy have grown in importance.

In theory, the United States and Europe agree that the selection of the World Bank and IMF chiefs should involve an open, merit-based process. But when the IMF managing director’s job came open last year, European nations were quick to rally behind France’s finance minister, Christine Lagarde — and the United States ultimately supported her as well.

European support for the U.S. nominee means whomever the White House chooses will remain the heavy favorite for the job. And even though Lagarde faced competition from Mexican central bank governor Agustin Carstens, many developing countries eventually supported the European nominee.

But Studart said the intent to make the process competitive is in earnest. When finance ministers of the Group of 20 top economic powers met in Mexico at the end of February, he said officials from developing nations met on the sidelines and decided to look for other nominees beyond the one expected from the White House.

“This was a decision of all the developing countries, that there be a serious discussion to say the World Bank is important to us,” he said. “It is historic.”

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