World Bank Board Weighs Fate of Wolfowitz

The pressure on Paul Wolfowitz to resign as World Bank president continues to grow. Last weekend, he received a rare public reprimand from the bank's leadership. On Wednesday, a deputy he appointed, New Zealand's Graeme Wheeler, asked him to resign. The bank's governing officials meet Thursday to debate what action to take.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The executive board of the World Bank met behind closed doors today to consider the fate of its beleaguered president, Paul Wolfowitz. The 24 directors are reviewing whether Wolfowitz broke bank rules in his management of the assignment and promotion of a female companion who was also a bank employee. Again today, the White House said President Bush has confidence in Wolfowitz, but NPR's Tom Gjelton reports calls for his resignation are growing by the day.

TOM GJELTON: Paul Wolfowitz did not show up today at a World Bank health conference. There was no explanation for his absence, but it raised new questions about how long he can keep up his fight for his job. At a meeting yesterday, one of the bank's two managing directors, Graham Wheeler(ph), personally challenged Wolfowitz to step down for the long-term interests of the bank. That's according to accounts of people who were in the meeting.

Wheeler is the most senior bank official who predates Wolfowitz. By calling on him now to resign, Wheeler effectively put his own job on the line, according to long-time bank observers. One person close to Wolfowitz's inner circle says his situation is now seen there as dire. And yet the bank executive board is moving very slowly in deciding what to do about the Wolfowitz situation.

Nancy Birdsaw(ph), a former World Bank vice president, says the board is struggling with its long tradition of acting only by consensus. Global institutions like the World Bank or the United Nations, she says, have a hard time breaking with the status quo.

Ms. NANCY BIRDSAW (Former Vice President, World Bank): It's easy to stop things. Every country and many of these institutions have effective veto power, certainly every powerful country, but it's very difficult to make decisions that are unusual.

GJELTON: The drama around the executive board deliberations has, to an extent, obscured the facts of the controversy involving Wolfowitz's female companion, Shaha Riza. Critics suggest she was promoted and given pay raises due to Wolfowitz's direct intervention, but writer Christopher Hitchens, who has known Riza for years, deeply objects to that characterization.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Writer): Shaha Riza does not owe any of her positions in the World Bank or any of the other institutions she's worked for in Washington to anybody's patronage, and girlfriend and mistress very strongly suggests or very insulting implies that she does.

GJELTON: At this point, a critical question regardless of the facts of the controversy, is whether Paul Wolfowitz is so weakened that he can no longer be an effective leader at the bank. The person close to Wolfowitz's inner circle says Wolfowitz is now having to justify why he should stay as opposed to his opponents justifying why he should go.

And it is no longer only Wolfowitz's job that is at stake. Countries must soon make new pledges to contribute funds to the International Development Association, or IDA, the branch of the bank that provides much of the funding for poor countries. The goal is $30 billion. Nancy Birdsaw, now the president of the Center for Global Development, fears the replenishment of IDA funds may suffer.

Ms. BIRDSAW: Ideally, this controversy would not influence the IDA replenishment. The risk of course is that some countries might use the controversy as an excuse to not contribute as much as they might have.

GJELTON: No one inside or outside the bank is guessing how quickly Paul Wolfowitz's fate is to be resolved. The bank's executive board meets privately, and today's session could be prolonged. Tom Gjelton, NPR News, Washington.

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