Well, at least he’s not a war criminal.

George Bush’s new selection to head the World Bank, Robert Zoellick has that over his predecessor, Paul Wolfowitz.

But can’t the world demand a slightly higher standard?

The selection process for chief of the World Bank, which claims to be the world’s preeminent anti-poverty institution, is preposterous. By tradition, the post goes to a U.S. citizen, to be selected by the U.S. President. There is no pretense of democracy at this international institution. Nor is there any pretense of demanding relevant development experience. None of the past presidents of the Bank, including Wolfowitz and Zoellick, has had any meaningful experience in development policy. There have been longstanding calls by people who actually care about development, and do have relevant expertise, to reform the Bank’s archaic government structure.

But more important than the Bank’s governing process are its policies.

The World Bank’s great failings over the last decades are rooted in its commitment to the market fundamentalism known as “the Washington consensus.” This is a set of maniacal market-oriented policies including: deregulation of the economy, opening countries up to capital inflows and outflows, removing all trade barriers and orienting economies to support exports, massive privatization (including even of such traditional government functions as customs collection), eliminating subsidies for basic necessities, rolling back legally guaranteed labor rights, cutting back on government services and restricting government spending. The Bank has also maintained a penchant for environmentally and socially destructive mega-development projects: big dams, oil and gas projects, road-building. The result has been a literal human disaster: the developing countries that have most closely hued to policies imposed by the World Bank (and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund) have found themselves much poorer, less healthy and less educated than countries that have resisted Bank recommendations.

In one notable example, the Bank’s historic support for user fees for education and healthcare has denied millions of children the right to schooling, and deprived millions of people access to healthcare.

The Wolfowitz controversy obscured the bigger issues at the Bank, and the questions now facing Zoellick:

Will Zoellick oppose user fees for healthcare?

Will he support robust public health systems that rely on public providers — not wishful thinking about HMO-style schemes delivering health care in developing countries?

Will he abandon support for water privatization, which delivers profits to multinationals but raises costs to consumers and decreases quality of service?

Will he end the Bank’s heinous opposition to labor rights in its influential Doing Business report?

Will he insist that countries be able to expand healthcare and education budgets, despite pressure from the International Monetary Fund?

Will he support the recommendations of Bank-supported expert investigations, and end support for mega-development projects?

As the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick pushed market extremist policies akin to those of the Bank, in World Trade Organization negotiations, and especially in bilateral and regional trade agreement negotiations.

His very aggressive agenda as USTR included advocating for increased monopoly rights for drug companies, eliminating precautionary health measures, removing protections for small farmers and eliminating protective industrial tariffs in developing countries (a key element of the misnamed “Doha Development Round” of World Trade Organization talks that Zoellick helped kick off).

To be fair to Zoellick, every recent person in his post, Republican or Democrat, has pushed the same Big Business agenda that he did. And on pharmaceutical and patent issues — some of the key considerations at USTR — he did not do everything Big Pharma wanted, and sometimes really pushed against the industry’s interests (until overridden by the White House.)

On the other hand, the fact that other former U.S. Trade Representatives pushed a broad Big Business agenda is hardly an argument for why Zoellick should be rewarded with the World Bank post. It is a better argument for why no former USTRs should be given the job.

And even though Zoellick had major conflicts with Big Pharma, he did at the end of the day deliver on almost everything the companies wanted. As my colleague Asia Russell of the AIDS activist organization Health GAP says, “It’s very difficult to imagine the same Bob Zoellick who carried water for Big Pharma being the kind of advocate ministers of health need in order to expand their investments in salaries for doctors and nurses to address 6,000 preventable AIDS deaths each day in Africa alone.”

The same point could be echoed about the rest of Zoellick’s performance as USTR.

Unless Zoellick makes a break from market fundamentalism, expect the World Bank to continue to generate rather than reduce poverty.

And yes, the world should demand better. For the immediate term, Zoellick should be pressed to make specific commitments to abandon key components of the Bank’s failed preferred policy set. The longer term agenda must involve achieving not just better governance at the Bank, but a completely refashioned orientation.


* Zoellick does not seem to have been an active part of the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal that concocted the case for the Iraq war and then carried it out, but he was (along with Paul Wolfowitz and others) a signer of the 1998 letter from the Project for a New American Century to Bill Clinton, urging Clinton “to turn your Administration’s attention to implementing a strategy for removing Saddam’s regime from power. This will require a full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts.”