The World Bank’s Spring Meetings, which concluded earlier this month, were significant this year for the first glimpse they offered of David Malpass as the world’s most influential development lender’s new president. Malpass, 63, a known critic of global financial institutions, had joined Donald Trump's presidential campaign as an economic adviser, and was serving as the US Treasury's under-secretary for international affairs when he was tapped by the president to lead the World Bank following the departure of Jim Kim, who fell out with the Trump administration at the start of the year.
Kim’s premature resignation, with more than three years left in his contract, must have been viewed as a gift by Trump. Throughout the World Bank’s history, it has been a given that the nominee the United States, the largest shareholder, puts forward would be approved by the board. But following calls for a more open, merit-based, and transparent selection process, in the lead up to Kim’s 2012 appointment, he became the first U.S. nominee to face an official challenger. But this precedent was done away with for Malpass.
Right from the outset, he seemed to be the latest in a line of appointments by the US president where he has deliberately put in place individuals with a record of criticism, skepticism or even litigation against a specific institution or agency to lead that very entity, as a way to weaken it and prevent it from fulfilling its mandate. Whether it’s Rick Perry as energy secretary, Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, or Mick Mulvaney - before he became chief of staff - at the head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau in his role as budget director, they each represented an audacious tactic on behalf of the US president to gut institutions he opposed on grounds of ideology.
It is difficult to see the appointment of Malpass outside this mould. Justin Sandefur, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, even said his “disdain for the World Bank’s mission of fighting global poverty rivals John Bolton’s (author’s note: there’s another one!) respect for the United Nations.” Nevertheless, the World Bank’s executive board unanimously approved him as their 13th president, and on April 9, as he stepped into the atrium to address his new colleagues for the first time, he faced a room full of employees and partners “looking for reassurance that he will not upend the institution or rewrite its priorities.” Of course, the sense of apprehension wasn’t all down to the threat Malpass represented to the Bank’s overall mission.
By all accounts, Kim’s tenure itself had not been without its own difficulties. According to the Centre for Financial Accountability, which looks at development finance, Kim presided over an institution which ended up “struggling to stay relevant” in the wake of new development banks and surging private equity funds, and weakened the Bank’s own safeguard policies to “stay competitive” with its rivals. Kim also oversaw a deeply unpopular reform package at the start of his presidency, that in the eyes of many colleagues transformed his image from that of an inspiring leader to an “arrogant autocrat, hiring and firing employees at will.” His supporters would argue that while he may have failed to win over those inside the bank, he did maintain its reputation globally, by pivoting to work on “public goods” and human development. He also pushed the institution to invest in fragile and conflict-affected states.
By looking at Congressional testimony that Malpass gave last year, TIME magazine identified three main goals when it comes to the Trump administration’s dealings with the World Bank and IMF, that he may be expected to implement:
The first is to get emerging markets to start relying more on international market-based financing rather than the below-market-rate financing the Bank offers; the second is to make sure that money is lent for projects that are more financially sustainable; and third is to seek more debt transparency from countries receiving the loans in order to keep better tabs on the financial diplomacy China is pursuing around the world. Additionally he can be expected to dramatically curb the World Bank’s work to fight climate change, something his predecessor championed. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Bank’s plan to lend $200 billion over the next five years to fight climate change under its new leadership.
Malpass has argued, much like his president, that "multilateralism has gone substantially too far," through international agreements that he and his ilk are wont to describe as part of the “liberal world order” of agencies and agreements spawned in the seven decades since the end of World War II. Perhaps no institution, with the exception of the UN, is as integral to that institutional structure than the World Bank, one of the original Bretton Woods institutions. Trump of course got elected in 2016 by taking an axe to this very system, so US voters certainly can’t complain they didn’t know what they were getting. But to the extent that the World Bank’s mission is a global one (broadly, to fight poverty), the prospect of “an arsonist at the head of the Fire Department”, as a former Liberian minister characterised it, Malpass’s appointment has brought the question of how the bank’s leadership should be selected sharply back into focus.
The US controls about 16 percent of the voting power in making the choice for the World Bank presidency, Although collectively European countries hold more, a sort of ‘gentlemen’s agreement” between the US and Europe has so far always seen a European named as managing director of the IMF (at present Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister) while the World Bank chief’s post went to an American.
Criticism of the practice has been growing in recent years in favour of nominating people who actually hail from developing countries to these two posts - occasioning the changes that were brought about in 2011-12, only to be abandoned ahead of the latest appointment, which may have been down to the lack of appetite among members for a scrap with the current US administration.
Somewhat ironically though, there is a line of thinking that Malpass’s successful nomination makes it all the more likely that whoever succeeds him will NOT be American. It’s true that the Bank has been moving in that direction for years now; an unsuccessful and controversial stint by Malpass might be just the thing to push its voting shareholders over the edge. To the extent that a cloud has descended, therein lies the silver lining.