- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

World Bank President Robert Zoellick said Wednesday he is stepping down, raising the possibility that a non-American might be chosen for the first time to head the 187-nation lending organization.

Mr. Zoellick, 58, informed the board he will leave June 30 at the end of a five-year term, during which he led the bank’s response to the global financial crisis. His plans after leaving were unclear.

The board now begins looking for a new president under guidelines directors adopted in 2011 calling for an “open, merit-based and transparent selection” process.

That suggests a break from the informal agreement that dates to the bank’s founding almost 68 years ago, under which the bank’s president is an American and the head of its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, is a European.

There is no guarantee that a non-American will be chosen to again head the bank even though China is now the world’s second-largest economy, and other countries with growing economic clout have been exerting pressure for a change in the U.S.-European arrangement.

The IMF was supposed to follow the same open selection guidelines when it searched for a new managing director last year, but wound up again choosing a European, former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

The World Bank is an international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries.

In a statement, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner praised Mr. Zoellick’s leadership at the World Bank and said the administration would put forward a candidate for the World Bank board to consider as his replacement.

“We encourage the board to move forward with an open and expeditious process,” Mr. Geithner said. “In the coming weeks, we plan to put forward a candidate with the experience and requisite qualities to take this institution forward.”

Mr. Geithner’s comments did not indicate whether the administration would be willing to back a non-American for the top job at the World Bank. But the U.S. controls the largest share of votes on the World Bank board, giving it significant say in who leads the institution.

Oxfam, an international aid agency often critical of the bank, said developing countries should play a major role in choosing a successor to Mr. Zoellick.

Spokeswoman Elizabeth Olsen said, “The bank only operates in developing countries, so any candidate not supported by a majority of these countries would plainly lack legitimacy.”

As Mr. Zoellick’s term drew to a close, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers were mentioned as possible successors.

While Mrs. Clinton will be free after January 2013, as she has said she would not serve as secretary of state should President Obama win a second term, the former first lady also said in June that “I do not have any interest” in the World Bank job. Mr. Summers was the chief economist at the World Bank before joining the Clinton administration.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said he did not know whether Mr. Obama had spoken with Mr. Zoellick and had no information on possible successors. “There has been much speculation, but I’m not going to confirm any of it,” he said.