Biden’s World Bank Pick Looks to Link Climate and Development Goals

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The Biden administration’s nominee to be the next president of the World Bank, the international development and climate institution, is embarking on a monthlong sprint around the globe to solidify support for his candidacy.

It will be the first opportunity for the nominee, Ajay Banga, to share his vision for the bank, which has been aiming to take on a more ambitious role in combating climate change while maintaining its core commitment to alleviating poverty.

Mr. Banga, who has had a long career in finance, faces the challenge of convincing nations that his decades of private-sector experience will help him transform the World Bank.

He will begin his “global listening tour” on Monday with stops in Ivory Coast and Kenya, the Treasury Department said on Friday. In Ivory Coast, he will meet with senior government officials, leaders of the African Development Bank and civil society organizations. In Kenya, he will visit the Kenya Climate Innovation Center and a World Bank-backed project that helps local entrepreneurs find ways to address climate change.

Mr. Banga will focus on how finding development solutions can be intertwined with climate goals and emphasize his experience working on financial inclusion in Africa, where he helped expand access to electronic payments systems while chief executive of Mastercard, a Treasury official said.

The whirlwind campaign will also take Mr. Banga to Asia, Latin America and Europe.

The White House nominated him last week after the unexpected announcement last month that David Malpass will step down as World Bank president by the end of June, nearly a year before the end of his five-year term. Mr. Malpass, who was nominated by President Donald J. Trump, ignited a controversy last year when he appeared to express skepticism about whether fossil fuels contribute to global warming.

During a briefing at the Treasury Department this week, Mr. Banga made clear that he had no doubts about the causes of climate change. “Yes, there is scientific evidence, and it matters,” he said.

Careful to strike a balance between the bank’s growing climate ambitions and its poverty-reduction goals, Mr. Banga emphasized that both issues were interconnected and equally important.

“My belief is that poverty alleviation, or shared prosperity, or all those words that essentially imply the idea of tackling inequality, cannot be divorced from the challenges of managing nature in a constructive way,” Mr. Banga added.

The World Bank’s nomination process runs through March 29, and other countries may offer candidates. But by tradition, the United States, the bank’s largest shareholder, selects an American to be its president. The executive board hopes to choose a new president by early May.

If approved by the board, Mr. Banga will face an array of challenges. The world economy is slowly emerging from three years of pandemic and war that have slowed global growth and worsened poverty. Emerging economies face the prospect of a cascade of defaults in the coming years, and the World Bank has been vocal in calling for debt reduction.

The Biden administration has pointed to China, one of the world’s largest creditors, as a primary obstacle in debt-restructuring efforts. Mr. Banga was careful not to be critical of China and said he expected to travel there in the coming weeks.

“Today I’m the nominee of the United States, but if I’m lucky enough to be elected, then I represent all the countries who are part of the bank,” Mr. Banga said on Thursday. “Having their points of view known, understood and openly discussed — maybe not agreed to, but openly discussed — is an important part of leading a multilateral institution.”

His nomination has won both praise and skepticism from climate activists and development experts.

Some climate groups have lamented Mr. Banga’s lack of direct public-sector experience and expressed concern about his affiliation with companies that invest in the oil and gas industries.

“Many question whether his history at global multinationals such as Citibank, Nestlé, KFC and Mastercard will prepare him for the huge challenges of poverty and inequality,” Recourse, a nonprofit environmental organization, said in a statement this week. Recourse has been critical of the World Bank’s policies on gas transition, its exposure to coal and its pace of action on climate change.

Other prominent activists have praised Mr. Banga, including Vice President Al Gore, who predicted that he would bring “renewed leadership on the climate crisis to the World Bank.”

And others viewed Mr. Banga as a natural choice to bridge the gap between the bank’s broad mandates.

“Throughout discussions of the World Bank’s evolution, borrowing countries have consistently communicated that financing for climate should not come at the expense of other development priorities,” Stephanie Segal, a senior fellow with the Economics Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an essay this week. “In nominating Banga, whose candidacy does not lead with climate, the United States has signaled agreement that the bank’s development mandate cannot be abandoned in favor of a ‘climate only’ agenda.”

The Biden administration has also faced questions about why it did not choose a woman to lead the bank, which has had only men serve as its full-time president.

Mr. Banga asserted that as someone who was born and educated in India, he would bring diversity and a unique perspective to the World Bank. He also emphasized that at Mastercard, he had demonstrated a commitment to empowering women and elevating them to senior roles.

“I think that you should credit the administration with taking a huge leap forward into finding somebody who wasn’t born here, wasn’t educated here,” Mr. Banga said. “I believe that giving people a level playing field is our job.”

He added: “And that means whether you’re a woman, your color, your sexual orientation, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, it doesn’t matter.”