Candidates line up to succeed Wolfensohn as World Bank chief

Poverty action groups urged the US government yesterday to open up the selection process for a new head of the World Bank after James Wolfensohn said he would stand down as president next year.

Mr Wolfensohn ended months of speculation by telling the Bush administration he would not seek a third five-year term, triggering a hunt for a replacement for the top job at the global lender.

The post has traditionally gone to an American under an unwritten agreement that sees a European take the top job of the International Monetary Fund, its sister organisation.

The news sparked renewed speculation over whom a Republican administration would want to head an organisation that lends $20bn (£10.5bn) to some of the world's poorest and most volatile nations. Among those rumoured was Robert Zoellick, the US Trade Representative (USTR), although he has repeatedly refused to say whether he even intends to step down from his current job.

Colin Powell, who will soon quit as US Secretary of State, has been mentioned as a candidate but has not expressed strong interest. Others possibilities include Carla Hills, another former USTR; John Taylor, the Treasury Under-Secretary for International Affairs; Jack Hennessy, the former chief executive of CSFB; and Christine Todd Whitman, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Developing countries are expected to push for a broader range of candidates and contend that the practice of giving the presidency to an American is outdated.

Dave Timms, a spokesman for the World Development Movement, said: "A stitch-up behind the scenes that chooses is just outrageous. Choosing the head of this sort of institution by Buggins' turn is absolutely wrong."

Romilly Greenhill, the UK policy officer at Action Aid, said: "Priority should be given to developing world candidates because they are going to know much better what the IMF and World Bank policies mean on the ground." The UK Department for International Development said it stood by its White Paper that called for "open and competitive processes" to select top international posts.

There was anger last year when the job of head of the IMF went to Rodrigo Rato, a Spaniard, despite competition from developing countries' candidates. Rob Nichols, a US Treasury spokesman, said the selection process for Mr Wolfensohn's successor would be "open and transparent and collaborative".

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