By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Outgoing World Bank President Robert Zoellick on Wednesday gave an impassioned defense of the institution he has run for five years and urged his successor to focus on developing countries as clients rather than aid recipients.
Zoellick said it was in the economic and security interest of rich countries like the United States to continue supporting the World Bank, which provides loans and other assistance to help poor countries to tackle of wide array of problems.
"We're beyond a model of charity to poor people," Zoellick said in remarks to the Inter-Action alliance of development groups. He argued World Bank programs contribute to global stability and economic growth, which in turn benefits both U.S. companies and the country as a whole.
"If you just take the United States, 4 percent of the world's population, 20 or more percent of the world economy - you have an interest in what's happening out there."
If rich countries ignore global poverty, "it becomes breeding grounds for problems," Zoellick said.
The United States has been the World Bank's biggest shareholder since its beginning after World War Two.
But huge U.S. budget deficits have put pressure on all government spending, raising questions about continued support by Washington for the bank's anti-poverty programs.
Zoellick steps down as World Bank president on July 1 and will be succeeded by Korean-born American health expert Jim Yong Kim, who was nominated by President Barack Obama for the post.
Kim, a physician and anthropologist who is currently president of Dartmouth College, was approved by the World Bank's 25-member board of directors last month.
That continued a long tradition of an American holding the post, although Kim faced a serious challenge from Nigeria's widely respected finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Zoellick said he had a three-hour meeting with Kim on Tuesday and was reluctant to offer public advice.
Still, he said it was important to avoid mistakes made 20 to 30 years ago when development experts presumed to know best what steps developing countries needed to take.
"That, to me, is the elite, top-down model that isn't going to work," Zoellick said.
Instead, the bank needs to work with developing countries, listen to what they think their problems are and help them to find solutions, he said.
Some development experts have criticized Kim as lacking the economic and financial credentials need to run the institution, but Zoellick downplayed those concerns.
"He's obviously a highly intelligent, highly accomplished, very committed individual," he said.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)