Who Should Lead the World Bank?

WASHINGTON, DC – Robert Zoellick will depart in June as President of the World Bank, once again raising the thorny issue of leadership of the Bretton Woods twins (the Bank and the International Monetary Fund). At their birth, John Maynard Keynes memorably warned that if these institutions did not get good leaders they would “fall into an eternal slumber, never to waken or be heard of again in the courts and markets of Mankind.”

Getting a good leader, of course, requires a careful selection process. Today, however, the world is stuck with just the opposite: a dreadfully antiquated process whereby the United States and Europe, despite their economic travails, retain a monopoly on the leadership of the Bank and the IMF, respectively.

There is grudging agreement that this system should change. But the forces perpetuating the status quo – European and American resistance to change and emerging-market countries’ passivity – remain powerful, as the choice last year of Christine Lagarde to lead the IMF illustrated. Election-year politics in the US will strengthen these forces further, with President Barack Obama’s administration unlikely to relinquish a symbol of global power, which would invite opponents’ charges of weak leadership.

But, in some ways, the easy part is to state the case for the obvious: the Bank requires a new selection process that will enable it to choose the most qualified person, regardless of nationality. The more difficult part is to identify the qualifications needed to run the Bank at a time when its role must be adapted to far-reaching global changes.