Jeffrey Sachs, campaigning to run the World Bank

Some things are questions of etiquette: How to hold your fork. When to take off your hat. Not to touch the Queen of England until she extends her hand.

One of the things that’s just not done is to campaign openly for the presidency of the World Bank. Such a campaign has been seen in the past as crass, unseemly and, more importantly, ineffective.

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But now Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economist, best-selling author and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is openly drumming up support for his own candidacy. Sachs says he has spoken to dozens of world leaders in the past week and won public endorsements from the prime ministers of Kenya, Malaysia, and Namibia and senior economic officials from other developing nations.

Ultimately, the decision rests with the White House, which invariably picks an American. That takes a lot of respected development experts from around the world out of the running. Yet Sachs — who has been advising foreign governments for a quarter-century and who has marshalled support from the likes of Bono and Bill Gates for economic development — hopes that a growing list of foreign leaders familiar with his work will help him get the job.

“There have been 11 presidents of the World Bank, and not one of them yet has been an expert in international development,” Sachs said in an interview Thursday. “The world would be better off and America’s interests in a peaceful world would be better served by an expert in development at the bank.”

The list, he notes, includes seven bankers, two senior Defense Department officials, one congressman, and a lawyer who was an assistant secretary at the War Department. And the very first World Bank president was Eugene Meyer, a financier who also owned The Washington Post. (He served for six months.)

With World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick’s term set to expire this summer, the Obama administration is weighing its choices. Information about the selection has been tightly held. Speculation has revolved around people such as PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and Lawrence Summers, former lots of things, including former chief economist of the World Bank from 1991 to 1993.

Political figures have been mentioned, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but they said they are not interested.

“This has always been a political appointment made by politicians for politicians or for bankers,” Sachs said. “This is not a place where politics should come first or that should be seen as some great plum or easy appointment for a businessperson. With all respect to them, they could be wonderful busi­ness­peo­ple, but they have no business on this list.”

Sachs said that the World Bank is “an institution adrift.” He said that its $16 billion of disbursements were modest given that there are 5.5 billion people living in developing countries. “It’s not a financial powerhouse,” he said. “It’s spread very thin. It’s got tremendous professionals, but it doesn’t have clear priorities.”

He said the institution should do more to boost output among small farmers, control pandemic diseases such as malaria, and use technology such as broadband to overcome development obstacles — all issues he has promoted as head of the Earth Institute and adviser to the U.N. secretarys general Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon on the body’s Millenium Development Goals.

“To get the bank to be effective and useful really requires leadership, ideas, and mobilizing stakeholders,” he said. “That is what I do for a living.”

Sachs, who became a tenured Harvard economics professor at the age of 28, has collected his share of admirers and critics. When the Soviet Union fell apart, he urged Russia and Eastern European countries to pursue rapid reform programs that became known as shock therapy. Critics say that in Russia it led to the creation of rich oligarchs. Sachs says that Russia followed its own corrupt path and that Poland, which embraced his advice and followed it more closely, is a success story.

In 2002, he moved to Columbia’s Earth Institute. He has written best-sellers including “The End of Poverty” and “The Price of Civilization.” He has won national awards from Poland and India. He has directed the Millennium Villages Project to raise agricultural output and cut child mortality in Africa.

William Easterly, a former bank official now at New York University, has been a vocal critic, once writing that Sachs’s “ideas on Africa happen to be sometimes totally wrong, and other times only seriously wrong.”

But Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Moh Najib calls Sachs “the strongest candidate” with “creativity, innovation, integrity” and “an unrivaled network of trusted interlocutors around the world.” Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s endorsement came from knowing Sachs for more than two decades, he said.

Many World Bank watchers say Sachscan’t expect to campaign his way into the job. Maybe he’s trying to stop Summers, some say. Sachs would not comment on Summers, but he said, “We know how this was going. There was a list of insiders or corporate candidates. Every one had a domestic political reason of some sort. This is not how this can work. That’s why I’ve come forward.”

Every World Bank president has been an American under an international arrangement that reserves the top IMF post for a European, currently former French finance minister Christine Lagarde. Mohamed el-Erian has called it “a feudal entitlement.” In a Financial Times piece, he hailed Sachs and Michael Spence, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who teaches at NYU, as strong candidates.

Asked whether he had spoken to from the Obama administration about the job, Sachs said he had. But, he added, “I don’t think I’ve sold the case yet.”

 
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