Send Indra Nooyi to the World Bank

By Felix Salmon
March 2, 2012

When it comes to the World Bank presidency, pretty much everybody agrees on two things: (1) it shouldn’t be an American; (2) it will be an American. We can and probably should get hung up on (1), but given political realities, it makes sense to ask: if it’s going to be an American, then who should it be? It shouldn’t be Larry Summers, that’s for sure, and it shouldn’t be Jeff Sachs, either. But there’s another name floating around which is a much better idea than either of those two men: Indra Nooyi.

Nooyi, the chairman and CEO of Pepsico, has a lot of things going for her. Firstly, she’s a woman — and it’s generally understood that the Obama administration would love to nominate a woman to the job if it possibly can. Here’s Alan Beattie:

Bank policymakers say that the US proposing a female candidate – who would be the first woman to lead the institution – could help neutralise the charge that the appointment process was “business as usual”. Although administration officials have been cagey about likely contenders, candidates that have been discussed include Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, Lael Brainard, top international economics official at the Treasury, and Indra Nooyi, chief executive of PepsiCo. Laura d’Andrea Tyson, who was White House chief economic adviser to former president Bill Clinton, is also a possible contender.

Nooyi definitely stands out in that crowd. Rice, Brainard, and even Tyson are smart and capable technocrats — but they’re not leaders in the way that Nooyi is. One of the problems with US nominees to the Bank presidency is that they tend to be the kind of people who have risen to positions of importance (but never quite the very top) within their own organizations, without having ever had much visibility or power in the world more broadly.

The list of potential nominees from non-US countries is full of heavy hitters with serious global reputations, including quite a lot of former heads of state. The US nominee should be of that general caliber, if only to make it clear that the US takes the Bank seriously and isn’t steamrolling a number of extremely high-profile foreign candidates, only to install in their rightful place the Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs. That’s an important job, to be sure, but it’s also a technocratic job where you always do what you’re told. It’s more fixer than leader.

Nooyi, by contrast, has led one of the world’s biggest multinational companies for five years, and has been in Pepsico’s C-suite for over a decade. During that time she has made a real and credible commitment to sustainability; she even managed to funnel $6 million to Sachs’s Earth Institute.

On top of that, she’s Indian. Born in Chennai, she didn’t arrive in the US until 1978, when she was 23. Nooyi’s an American now, and she’s certainly American enough to lead the World Bank, given the precedent of Jim Wolfensohn. But she wouldn’t only be the first woman to lead the Bank; she’d also be the first non-white person to lead the Bank. And that, of course, is something which is long overdue.

Nooyi is very comfortable among the upper reaches of global VVIPs, and, like Wolfensohn, she also has the significant advantage, for a World Bank president, of being rich enough to afford her own private jet. What’s more, the Bank job would allow her to turn even the criticisms of her tenure at Pepsico to her advantage. Consider this:

“It’s a very enticing vision to be more focused on health and wellness, to be focused on global hunger and all of those things,” says Ali Dibadj, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “The problem is, you have to remember where three quarters of the company comes from: sugary, salty, fatty” foods.

Nooyi has at this point made more money than she could possibly ever spend; she’s clearly committed to making a difference in the world. And she’d be more able to do that at the helm of the World Bank than she would be staying on at Pepsico with restive shareholders pressuring her to sell more soda. Nooyi and the Bank need each other; her nomination makes perfect sense.

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