March 8, 2005

Clueless?

On Monday the Washington Post ran a column by Sebastian Mallaby taking the Bush administration to task for so far failing to come up with any stellar candidates for head of the World Bank, a post traditionally filled with an American citizen. It was titled "Clueless on the World Bank", and it made a fair criticism of two of the people whose names have been floated by administration sources as possible candidates, Paul Wolfowitz and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Wolfowitz was a non-starter given his close ties to the Bush foreign policy that is anathema to the NGO set, although Mallaby allowed that he was probably qualified, absent political considerations:

Wolfowitz has most of what it takes to lead the World Bank. He is a persuasive communicator; he has experience in public-sector management; and he knows something about developing countries, having served as ambassador to Indonesia.

As for Fiorina, her experience is too much private sector, and she's not exactly coming off of a ringing success:

What of Fiorina? A straw poll of pro-Bush economists last week, including one who held a senior White House position, yielded a unanimous verdict: The idea is preposterous. Fiorina was fired from the top job at Hewlett-Packard because she proved incapable of running a large organization. How could the Bush administration, which claims to respect the judgments of the marketplace, entrust her with the formidable challenge of running the bank's 10,000-strong bureaucracy?

I read the story with interest, since I know precious little about the World Bank except that it funds projects in the developing world, and has come under criticism for bankrolling some real loser projects, and saddling already poor countries with tremendous debt burdens they can't afford, while no doubt having had its share of successes as well.

And running this politically-charged, cumbersome monster has to be a difficult and daunting job for whatever unique soul could be found who was both qualified and willing to say "yes" to the offer. Corporate CEO's are found wanting for just the right type of management experience. High-level government officials with diplomatic backgrounds are coming up short too. This is one tough search for any headhunter.

That's why I thought I must be reading an item from Scrappleface the following day when I read that none other than Bono was being considered for the job.

Bono.

Yes, he has done many good works, and his is an influential voice, and he is sincere and passionate and all that. But he's an entertainer. Granted, by virtue of his celebrity and his passion he has become an effective activist for all manner of third world causes, all of which is to his great credit. And if the World Bank was looking for a Face Man instead of an administrator and manager and businessman and politician and financial mind, he might be the guy. If he could take the hours and stomach the pay cut, that is.

Dan Engber of Slate took a sober look at the whole Bono for World Bank question today, including a rundown of the duties and responsibilities of the job, which don't remind me of Bono's resumé:

He travels the world, manages an army of 10,000 employees, and shakes lots and lots of hands...The World Bank, founded in 1944, lends money and makes grants to developing countries around the world. On trips to both member nations and developing nations, the president meets with government officials and nongovernmental groups, holds press conferences, and surveys the impact of the bank's aid projects.

When he's not on the road, the president works from Washington, D.C., and presides over semiweekly meetings of the bank's board of executive directors, 24 political appointees representing the 184 countries that control the organization. Board meetings take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays and typically run all day. If the president can't be there, his managing director fills in.

He reviews grant and loan decisions, sets priorities for the bank, and manages its international staff (of which one-third is stationed overseas). He's also responsible for keeping the development committee—which oversees both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—happy. He works seven days a week for most of the year, with five weeks of vacation. For his efforts, the president gets paid about $300,000 per year plus travel, and his income is not taxed.

Most of the 300 or so stories linked by Google News that connected Bono's name to the World Bank position on Monday quoted Bush administration officials trying to, on the one hand, say nice things about Bono, while not getting caught saying anything that would encourage serious speculation about his candidacy. That's smart.

So why 300 stories? Talk about celebrity worship. Or maybe just a slow news day. By late Tuesday CNN was throwing cold water on what was probably a non-story from the start:

...experts say Bono's likelihood of being appointed are slim to none, and slim just left the building...

..."The possibility of this happening is zero," said (Steve)Radelet, noting that the successor would almost definitely be an American.

So we had 24 hours of half-hearted media speculation about a big star maybe (but probably not) being considered for a high-profile international position for which he was manifestly not suited. Hundreds of stories exploiting the name of a celebrity for headlines, ratings, readers. A non-story, rightly strangled in the cradle, having served its purpose. Our media in 2005.

Posted by dan at March 8, 2005 5:17 PM