Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, who led the UN committee on the Millennium development goals, threw his hat in the ring Friday in a Washington Post op-ed piece, saying the World Bank needs an expert like himself rather than another politician or Wall Street banker.
Sachs's declaration came amid signs the United States is eyeing others for the high-profile job.
"The United States signaled that it was looking at the possibility of nominating (Treasury Secretary Timothy) Geithner, (one of his predecessors Larry) Summers, or someone from the private sector like (Pimco chief executive) Mohamed El-Erian," said a person close to the World Bank, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Those three have remained mum on their interest in heading the global development lender.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also has been widely mentioned in the media as a possibilty. Geithner's deputy for international affairs, Lael Brainard, has drawn some attention as well.
With the deadline for nominations three weeks away, the competition "is beginning to pick up speed," the source said.
One thing seems certain, though: despite a chorus of calls from emerging markets and NGOs for a non-American to lead the development lender, in the name of the "new normal" global economy, the United States, as the biggest stakeholder, is expected to decide the winner.
The World Bank has promised the selection process will be "merit-based and transparent" and open to candidates from its 187 member nations.
But in an unwritten pact since the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund nearly seven decades ago, the US has always put an American at the helm of the Bank and Europe has ensconced a European as IMF managing director.
But the clamor for an alternative has grown louder.
After Zoellick announced two weeks ago he was stepping down on June 30 at the end of his five-year term, China and Brazil called for a fair, competitive selection process.
Neither has put forth an alternative candidate, at least not yet.
Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has suggested Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in microfinance.
On Friday Yunus flatly ruled out taking the job, but the person close to the World Bank suggested that Yunus may still emerge as a candidate.
"But right now it isn't the intention of the Indian director on the board to propose him."
An Indian director holds the board seat shared by India and Bangladesh.
The source said Brazil would probably nominate someone, with some speculation focusing on former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.
Nancy Birdsall, head of the Center for Global Development, stressed that the selection process "needs to be competitive" and truly open to any candidate.
She has proposed two "top-notch" candidates from large, fast-growing developing countries: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Nandan Nilekania, the Indian co-founder of INFOSYS.
It is crucial that "whoever ends up in the job has the legitimacy that a person that is truly competent would ensure," she said in a phone interview.
Washington is maintaining a vault-like silence on its preferred candidate.
Traditionally it has been a high-powered diplomat – like Zoellick – or someone from the financial sector.
Clinton would be a popular choice, many say, and she has said she wants to retire as the country's top diplomat by January, the end of President Barack Obama's first term.
But she has also repeatedly insisted she does not want the post.
Geithner, too, has said he wants out of Washington by January, though not as strongly as Clinton.
Because of a controversy when he was World Bank chief economist in the 1990s, "Summers would be perceived as an affront for the Africans," the source said.
Pimco's El-Erian, the head of the world's biggest bond fund, might solve a problem of "internationalizing" the job: he has both French and Egyptian roots, while also maintaining US citizenship.
El-Erian, who worked for several years at the IMF, could appeal to the emerging countries, the source said, "but it still is necessary to convince him to accept" the new job.
Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University and is a special adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, made an argument for a more qualitative change.
"Unlike previous World Bank presidents, I don't come from Wall Street or US politics. I am a practitioner of economic development, a scholar and a writer. My track record is to side with the poor and hungry, not with a corporate balance sheet or a government," he said in the Washington Post.
"Finding the graceful way forward, forging the networks that can create global change, should be the bank's greatest role," Sachs said. "I'll stand on my record of helping to create those networks."
The deadline for nominations is March 23. The World Bank has set a goal of picking the new president by the World Bank-IMF meetings on April 20-22.