WASHINGTON – Robert Zoellick, a seasoned player in international financial and diplomatic circles, won the unanimous approval of the World Bank's board on Monday to become the poverty-fighting institution's next president.
Zoellick will succeed Paul Wolfowitz, whose last day is Saturday, ending a stormy two-year tenure. The new president will take the reins Sunday, the first day of his five-year term.
"I am ready to get to work," Zoellick declared, shortly after the board's action.
Wolfowitz courted controversy from the start because of his role in the Iraq war when he was deputy defense secretary. However, it was his role in arranging a hefty pay raise for Shaha Riza, his girlfriend and bank employee, that forced his upcoming departure. That prompted a staff revolt and calls by Europeans and others for Wolfowitz to resign.
President Bush turned to Zoellick — his former top trade envoy and No. 2 diplomat— to the heal wounds and mend the relationships strained by the Wolfowitz episode.
Zoellick, 53, brings to the World Bank years of experience in the foreign and economic policy arenas under three Republican presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan. Zoellick left the Bush administration last year to become an executive at the Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs.
The board, in a brief statement, said Zoellick brings "strong leadership and managerial qualities as well as a proven track record in international affairs and the drive required to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the bank."
As World Bank chief, he'll have his work cut out for him. He'll need to regain trust, rebuild credibility and mend frayed relations inside the institution as well as with its member countries worldwide. He'll also need to persuade countries to contribute nearly $30 billion over the next few years to fund a centerpiece bank program that provides interest-free loans to the world's poorest countries.
The board said it was confident that Zoellick will be able to "address the challenges facing the bank."
Of those challenges, Zoellick said: "The world has changed enormously since the creation of the bank some 60 years ago. This accomplished institution of development, reconstruction and finance not only needs to adapt: it must lead the way," to bring about global change to help the world's poor.
German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who was highly critical of Wolfowitz, was one of the first to congratulate Zoellick.
"He brings all of the qualifications with him needed to successfully fill this demanding and responsible role...The greatest tasks facing mankind in the 21st century are waiting: The fight against poverty and climate change," Wieczorek-Zeul said in a statement. "I look forward to cooperating with him and wish him much success."
To begin the healing process, Zoellick took a two-week global tour to Africa, Europe and Latin America. His goals were listening and learning, he said.
He's also been working to keep lines of communications open with the board. Zoellick met with the board for around four hours last Wednesday to discuss key issues, including challenges of development, the bank's governance and leadership as well as future strategic directions. He plans to reach out to staff, as well.
Oxfam International, an anti-poverty group, called on Zoellick to be a bold reformer — including getting rid of some strings attached to bank lending and overhauling the bank's governance structure.
"Zoellick must begin a series of reforms in his first 100 days to create a new deal between the bank and the world's poor. We can't continue with business as usual," said Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam's executive director.
Wolfowitz had waged a vigorous battle to save his job. He was all but forced out, however, by the finding of a special bank panel that he violated conflict-of-interest rules in his handling of Riza's pay package.
The whole matter was seen as a growing liability that threatened to tarnish the institution's reputation and hobble its ability to persuade countries around the world to contribute billions of dollars to provide financial assistance to poor nations.
Yet the board on Monday struck a conciliatory note, expressing appreciation to the departing Wolfowitz.
By tradition, the World Bank has been run by an American. The Bush administration made clear it wanted to keep that decades-old practice firmly intact throughout the Wolfowitz debacle. The United States is the bank's largest shareholder and its biggest financial contributor.
The bank, created in 1945 to rebuild Europe after World War II, provides more than $20 billion a year for projects such as building dams and roads, bolstering education and fighting disease. The bank's centerpiece program offers interest-free loans to the poorest countries.