Tough boots to fill at the top of the World Bank


Philip Moore
Published on:

And just as tough to get an interview with those higher up the ladder.


Identifying candidates who were willing to take on the World Bank presidency became trickier as the list of desirable or essential requirements lengthened. 

Preferred credentials added in later years would include an interest in development, a commitment to alleviating poverty, a determination to address climate change and reasonable social and communications skills. 


David Malpass,
World Bank

Ideally, too, World Bank presidents would be sufficiently fit and youthful to complete two five-year terms, not least because as former president Robert McNamara once observed, for any newcomer it would take “two years to find your way around.” 

Age was clearly against Eugene Meyer, who was 70 when he was appointed. Poor health was against some later World Bank chiefs, most notably Lewis Preston in the 1990s. The former JPMorgan chief executive was 68 when his presidency was cut short by terminal cancer.

Others were unsuitable because they were singularly uninterested in the World Bank presidency in the first place. When the Bank of America man, Alden ‘Tom’ Clausen, was approached by the Carter administration in 1980 he “kept saying no”, eventually succumbing after repeated exhortations to take the post, according to an internal interview he gave in June 1992. 

Former Congressman, Barber Conable, was even less enthusiastic about the presidency when he was called up by Treasury Secretary James Baker in 1985. 

Conable reluctantly agreed to step up to the plate when it was impressed upon him that if he refused, he would expose the Bank to the risk of the institution being run by a European. 

Gentleman's agreement

That would have broken the gentleman’s agreement, observed since the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, that the World Bank was to be led by an American and the IMF by a European. 

The Sydney-born James Wolfensohn got round this stumbling block by becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1980. Passed over for the presidency that year, he was eventually given the position he had craved for over 15 years in 1995. 

In marked contrast to Conable, Wolfensohn’s vulnerability may have been that he wanted the job too much. That ambition and energy sustained a decade-long presidency that many believe was second only to McNamara’s in delivering on the Bank’s mission. But it is also said to have made Wolfensohn prickly and hyper-sensitive, which in turn alienated many of the Bank’s best staff. 

Sharing some of his recollections with Euromoney this summer, Wolfensohn says that he thoroughly enjoyed every moment of his presidency. If he could have done anything differently during that tenure, he says, he might have exerted more influence over the choice of his successor. 

The appointment in 2005 of former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz was certainly surprising, given his role in the Iraq war and the widespread perception that he was what Euromoney described in 2005 as “one of the prime architects of US neo-imperialism.” 

I wouldn’t describe him as socially inept. But it was almost impossible to persuade him to attend any social events, unless they were about tigers 
 - Former colleague of Robert Zoellick

Wolfowitz resigned following a messy controversy over the pay rise he was alleged to have sanctioned for his partner, a World Bank staffer named Shaha Riza. 

If his lack of banking experience had made Wolfowitz a curious and unpopular nominee for the presidency of the World Bank, there would be no such misgivings about the pedigree of Jim Yong Kim’s predecessor, Robert Zoellick, who joined the Bank from Goldman Sachs in 2007. 

He steered the institution ably through the financial crisis and was recognized as the safe pair of hands that was needed after the departure of Wolfowitz. 

“Zoellick’s job was to stabilize the Bank and restore some camaraderie among the staff, which he did very well,” one former colleague tells Euromoney. “Because of his time at Goldman Sachs, he was on first name terms with many of the world’s most influential leaders, which was also helpful.”

However, Zoellick is also said to have been colourless and sometimes inexplicably reserved. 

“I wouldn’t describe him as socially inept,” the same colleague adds. “But it was almost impossible to persuade him to attend any social events, unless they were about tigers.”

This is a reference to Zoellick’s passion for conserving wild tigers, as distinct from a particular interest in fast-growing Asian economies.

Zoellick may have been great for endangered wild cats. He was not quite so good for journalists. As a frustrated contributor to Forbes wrote at the end of Zoellick’s tenure in 2012: “I’ve covered this bank for the past five years and have been ritually denied access to anyone in a mid-to-top level post.” 

Euromoney knows the feeling. 


For many, the appointment in 2012 of Kim, a physician and anthropologist who had once called for the Bank to be abolished, was almost as perplexing as the choice of Wolfowitz. 

Kim refused to discuss his time at the Bank or his premature departure from it with Euromoney, probably because he felt that he had been given an unfair hearing by other publications. He may have had a point. After all, he was at the wheel when the Bank secured a sizeable capital increase and he made a steadfast commitment to addressing the challenge of climate change. But those who worked with Kim say that he was – unsurprisingly – far more comfortable talking about public health than about finance. They also say that he was an inscrutable figure with a gigantic ego. 

Kim’s replacement, David Malpass, appears to be little more communicative than his predecessors. Offering the World Bank a window of about two months for a short interview, Euromoney was told that the (relatively) new president’s schedule was “very tightly committed”, whatever that may mean.