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Jeffrey Sachs Wants To Be World Bank President, And He's Helping It Already

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Jeffrey Sachs would like to be your World Bank president.

It's probably not going to happen, for better or worse. But simply by asking for the job, Sachs has already done the World Bank a service.

That's because his campaign is throwing a little light on a cloistered selection process badly in need of reform, with big consequences for millions of people, and for U.S. national security.

"This is not a game, this fight against poverty and the challenges of sustainability," Sachs told The Huffington Post in an interview this week. "Places are descending into violence and conflict, and the U.S. is pulled into these conflicts. But they cannot be solved without sustained development."

Running for the World Bank is simply not done in public. It's typically a matter decided quietly by the White House, which then presents its choice to the World Bank Board of Directors for a thorough rubber-stamping.

The process has alienated most of the rest of the world, including the developing nations that most need the World Bank's help. And it has made the bank less legitimate, sapping the moral authority of an institution that should be the global leader in fighting poverty.

"It is not so much the identity of [outgoing World Bank president Robert] Zoellick's replacement that concerns us but rather the process in which his successor is selected," Philippines Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima told Reuters last month.

Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, has thrown a wrench in that process. He is going out of his way to let as many people as possible know he wants the job. He even wrote a "Why I Want To Be The World Bank President" op-ed in the Washington Post, several weeks before ex-Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith made "Why I Want/Am Quitting This Job" op-eds cool.

His candidacy seems to be gaining some traction, at least outside of the White House. He has the backing of Democrats in Congress, led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who on Friday sent President Obama a letter urging him to pick Sachs.

And he has rounded up support from several countries, including Haiti, Bhutan and Kenya, who have officially nominated him for the job.

Sachs said he expects more nations to nominate him in the coming days. And he said he has heard from several heads of state that they support his candidacy but don't want to annoy the U.S. by saying so publicly.

This is not just an academic exercise or a popularity contest. The World Bank does not have to be a "sleepy intergovernmental organization," as Matthew Yglesias called it recently. The bank can and should make a difference in fighting hunger and poverty around the world, including in spots of national interest to the United States.

One important way to help make the World Bank more effective and legitimate is to open the presidential selection process to public scrutiny and active competition -- something Sachs' candidacy is starting to do.

"Jeff is showing here the way forward for those around world who have candidates who are qualified, a way of putting those names in play," said Colin Bradford, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former chief economist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. "The person the board of directors selects had better be at least as good as the names surfacing in public."

This year, Bradford added, "that person needs to be at least as good as Jeff Sachs -- otherwise it will be a sham."

Some time in the next week, President Barack Obama is expected to announce his selection to replace the outgoing World Bank president, Robert Zoelllick, a Bush nominee. Some time between March 23 and April 2, the World Bank Board of Directors will announce its choice, which will almost certainly be the person the White House picks.

None of the top candidates that are known so far have expressed interest in the job. This group includes former White House economic advisor Larry Summers -- the absolute worst possible candidate for the job and, of course, the one who seems most likely to get it.

The list also includes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) -- both of whom have directly denied interest -- along with United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi.

It is not clear whether Sachs' campaign is having any effect on the White House's selection process. Sachs himself doesn't know, though he says he is talking to the White House.

"In the end, the U.S. nomination will be the president's call," Sachs said. "I'm not an insurgent candidate. I'm working hard to win the president's support because this is my life's work."

Though there is support on the left for Sachs, it is not unanimous. In a blog post at The Nation recently, John Cavanagh, director of the Institute of Policy Studies, and Robin Broad, professor of international development at American University, said they couldn't support Sachs, who is still infamous in some circles on the left for his "shock doctrine" approach to development and inflation-fighting in Bolivia, Russia and elsewhere decades ago.

Instead, Cavanagh and Broad argued, as others have, that the World Bank would be better served with a president from a developing nation.

That's true. It's also probably just about as unrealistic as Sachs's public campaign for the job -- which included defending himself at length in The Nation.

But by bringing this process and its absurdities into the public eye, Sachs is at least helping to make the prospect a little more realistic in the future.