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Mr. Wolfowitz and the Bank

Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page A18

THE WORLD Bank's board will meet today and will almost certainly confirm the nomination of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz as its new president. The initial expressions of shock from Europe have proved unserious and, in some cases, even hypocritical. Louis Michel, the Belgian who serves as the European Union's development commissioner, insisted that Mr. Wolfowitz fly to Brussels for an interview before getting Europe's blessing but when the candidate arrived yesterday, Mr. Michel himself was in the Caribbean. Equally, many Europeans had lashed out at the undemocratic fashion in which Mr. Wolfowitz was chosen; instead of an open, meritocratic, international competition, the White House presumed to install its own choice. Yesterday, however, France was hotly insisting that the No. 2 job at the World Bank be reserved for a Frenchman, and it was not shy of suggesting which one.

Imposing a particular deputy on Mr. Wolfowitz is not going to help. It will push the World Bank toward the nationality-driven hiring that is the bane of United Nations agencies, and it won't necessarily extend European influence much. It's true that the No. 2 at the International Monetary Fund, who is always an American, does boost U.S. clout within the World Bank's sister institution. But that is because the IMF's American No. 2 usually speaks with the solid backing of the U.S. Treasury. The European Union, however, has 25 different treasuries. A European No. 2 at the World Bank could never speak for all of them.

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Mr. Wolfowitz's critics, domestic as well as international, should now get beyond their dislike of his role in the Iraq war and give him a chance to succeed at one of the world's hardest jobs. The extent of this challenge will be clear from today's board meeting, which will also approve a controversial mega-dam in communist Laos. Such dams always put the World Bank in the firing line; they pose risks to the environment and to indigenous peoples, and they involve enormous construction contracts that are prone to corruption. In the second half of the 1990s, the bank reacted by refusing to finance new dams, but there's no point in having a World Bank if it runs away from hard projects. Somebody has to think through the trade-offs between the environment and indigenous lifestyles on the one hand and the need for electricity and development on the other. That is what the World Bank has attempted in the Laotian case. But the institution will have a hard time facing down the inevitable attacks on its decision if it is simultaneously having to defend itself against critics who dislike its new president.

Most people agree that the World Bank is necessary. There are few competent organizations that can help manage the challenges of globalization, from contagious diseases to contagious financial crises, from postwar reconstruction to water management to illiteracy. The World Bank brings big financial and intellectual resources to all of these challenges; it provides around $20 billion a year to developing countries and houses the largest concentration of development thinkers anywhere. People who care about this institution and its mission -- as many of Mr. Wolfowitz's detractors do -- should think carefully before they damage it by attacking its new boss. Criticism of Mr. Wolfowitz's agenda for the bank may be healthy once that agenda emerges. But preemptive condemnation because of the Iraq war is not.

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